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December 18, 2011

MARK BENNETT: In this day and age, pure quiet is hard to find

It’s hard to emulate JFK — this JFK, at least.

His “Ask not” quotation, etched onto a plaque, hangs above this JFK — a bust of the 35th president, perched atop a pedestal on the top floor of the St. Mary-of-the-Woods College Library. Those words from his Jan. 20, 1961, inaugural address to “a new generation of Americans” were indeed a lofty challenge.

But this John F. Kennedy sets a different standard for us to meet. Cast in bronze, he quietly stands watch over more than 20 shelves filled with books. Massive evergreens sway in the cool December breeze outside, but their rustling can’t be heard inside.

The room is utterly soundless. In other settings, the airy hum of my laptop would be unnoticeable. Here, its noise warrants an apology, yet there is no one to hear it, aside from President Kennedy.

The song “Silent Night” will echo through churches and waft from car radios this week around the Wabash Valley. That anticipation led me to visit the quietest locale I could envision — the library on the serene Woods campus.

I constituted the only sign of life on the third floor Thursday afternoon. The students had just finished semester finals and headed home for the holidays. The linoleum glowed from fluorescent lights overhead. A globe, a stray copy of the “History of England” on an empty desk, and Mr. Kennedy shined, too, but there was no sound.

It was silent, and rare.

Pure quiet is hard to find. It unsettles us. The biblical passage, “Be still and know that I am God,” seems like a Herculean feat in the 21st century. We layer noises upon noises like a deli sandwich.

In any given household on any given day, we may hear tires squeal in a car chase on the living room TV, goofy YouTube bloopers on a computer, chimes from an incoming text message on a cellphone, a conversation on another cellphone, explosions from a video game on an iPad, trucks rumbling up the street outside, a neighbor running his leaf blower, and the ring of a landline telephone.

The old phrase, “I can’t hear myself think,” is more real than ever.

Advertisers know how difficult it is to get our attention these days. They boost the volume of television commercials to deafening peaks to dissuade us from changing the channel or to make sure we still hear their pitch as we walk into the kitchen for a snack.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission passed regulations mandating that broadcasters and cable and satellite providers maintain constant volume levels with their programming. The sounds from some ads reached a shrill 78 decibels, just shy of the 80 decibels produced by a blow dryer. By contrast, a subtle churn of a refrigerator motor measures at 40 decibels. The FCC received authority to issue the guidelines thanks to congressional legislation signed last year by President Obama known as the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act, or CALM.


Seldom do we sense that all is calm.

In fact, some people desire the opposite. Along with the loud advertisements, noise gets forced upon us in other ways. The writer of a letter sent to the Tribune-Star editor earlier this year complained about the prevalence of heart-thumping, bass-drenched car stereos on Terre Haute’s streets. Granted, I crank up “Won’t Get Fooled Again” when it comes on my radio, but these booming, low-end blasts rattle the steering wheels of every nearby car and drown out even The Who.

The letter writer aptly labeled these noises as “audio assaults.” They leave wounds. The Environmental Protection Agency cites research confirming that noise pollution causes stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption and low productivity at work.

As Christmas and the year-end holidays approach, many of us would find it therapeutic to experience a truly silent night, or morning or afternoon, for that matter. It’s a time for reflection and, for many, spiritual connection. Amid all the hustle and bustle, it’s a time to also be still and listen. Without the unending rants of cable TV politicos, traffic and technological gadgets.

Anyone who’s attended a candlelight church service on Christmas Eve has likely felt the power of stillness, when the last chorus of “Silent Night” fades, the flames are extinguishes and sound disappears just for a moment.

Outside the library window Thursday afternoon, I finally detected a faint bit of noise — the growling of a Harley, climbing a county road beyond the Woods campus. Soon, the disruption passed. The room remained quiet, as JFK watched.


Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or

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    March 12, 2010