Noise and the Illusion of Control

I often find myself preoccupied by noise. This can be a problem, because our world is saturated with noise in many ways. We rarely can achieve that pure and perfect silence, whether we seek it, or strive to avoid its searching depths. There is almost always something going on in the background. Sometimes they are deliberate sounds, like music, and sometimes they are incidental, intertwined with everyday life. Cars whiz by on nearby roads; drilling slices through the air from the interminable construction work always going on somewhere in the neighbourhood…

There is always noise: people talking, people walking, even the noises that nature imposes on a sterile silence, like birds chattering and wind rustling through trees and rain pricking softly against the slicked black pavement. Here, the words of the Grinch spring to mind (if you’ll pardon the not-yet-seasonal reference): “Noise, noise, noise!”

But noise is natural. Most of the time we don’t even notice the noises that provide the backdrop to our daily lives. The little sounds are not isolated and identified by our conscious mind. Instead, they slip to the back of our subconscious reality, individual noises losing their colour as they blend together. In a sense, they all become one: white noise.

Certainly, noise can be used as a tool to fill our lives with distraction, reflecting a fear of silence that can cripple self-growth and reflection. But that is a subject for another post. I want to speak here about those noises that we do not choose or are not part of: namely, the noises we cannot control.

Control, I think, is really at the heart of any objection to noise. As I mentioned above, the kind of noise I am referring to is normally in the background rather than the foreground of our thoughts. However, there are times when these normally innocuous noises sharpen in our focus and dominate our attention. Take for example the sound of a loud and lively conversation. If we are part of the conversation it might not seem quite so unruly, but distanced from the social gathering and engaged in some other individual activity requiring focus, the noise can become so grating it seems unbearable.

As someone who is often irritated and set on edge by noise, I really think that the conflict or tension lies not in the noise itself but in our personal response to it. Barring noises that are really catastrophic or call for some sort of intervention (not all noises require from us patient stoicism), most noises are not unbearable. In fact, I think they could be far more bearable if we delved into the way we respond to them. Why do such noises provoke irritation, and why do they do so only some of the time? This is the key point: the inconsistency of this type of reaction points to some other factors involved.

When we respond negatively to noise, I think it is because the noise reacts with some stressor or fear within us. If I am feeling anxious, whether consciously so (due to some external circumstance or explicit thought), or in an unconscious and uneasy way, then the noise brings those feelings to a head, increasing the stress or anxiety. Even so, such an immediate reaction (that is often initially physical) can be dismissed or drawn out. If we engage the anxiety, it threatens to overwhelm or overcome us.

Of course, this may not always be the case. Noise may be the source of frustration simply because it disrupts what we are doing or the noise is not as it should be. However, regardless of whether we react from anxiety or merely to the context of the noise, problems arise when we desire to control the situation. Whether a noise exacerbates a preexisting anxiety or invades our personal quiet, it is when we give it attention that it leaps from the background to the foreground of our mind.

For example, when I first moved into a new apartment, I realized that my bedroom had a window directly facing the road, down below. As soon as this realization sunk in, I anticipated the “difficulties” this would surely cause. Sitting at my desk, I heard each car that whizzed past outside, and tensed up in response. My focus was constantly interrupted by the sounds of the road, and the more that this occurred, the more I worried about how this noise would negatively impact me. As a result, the noise in and of itself was not negative and it did not necessarily have to affect me negatively. However, it was once I labelled the noise and the situation as negative that my predictions became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In my mind I had an image of the ideal situation, in which my room was not so close to the road, and the road in question was not so noisy. But despite the ideal nature of this image, it was not the reality. My room was near the road and the road was at times noisy. By anticipating the response I was to have to this situation, I actually produced the response myself. I created my own irritation and tension because I focused too much on the disjunct between the ideal and the real.

Here we come to the issue of control again. At that point, I had no control to alter those circumstances. I could hardly stop the road or tell those cars to make a detour, and I couldn’t turn my room into a soundproof vault. The only choices I had were either to resist the circumstances or to accept them. Resistance would not change anything in my external surroundings; it would only change me. It would make me less able to be my full self, and less open to the beauty and the good of the things that did appear before me. Acceptance on the other hand would allow me to acknowledge the noise and my own powerlessness concerning it, and so to move on without sacrificing my inner peace.

It was a continual struggle to make this choice to accept the circumstances rather than trying to change them, but once I began to let go of the noises of the road and their proximity to myself, they faded from my notice almost completely. Instead of isolating and focusing on the noise, I let it blend into its surroundings, let it belong within this “natural environment” and saved my energy (before squandered by frustration) for other things.

I think this strategy for responding to noise can apply as well to many other things, really to anything that is not “ideal” or that we cannot control. Perhaps it is a negative external circumstance or an anxious destructive thought. If we resist, and so cling on to this illusory notion of control, it will continue to hold power over us. If instead we can acknowledge that we are powerless and do not have ultimate control, then we can move forward with trust, openness and acceptance. In the end, letting go of the need for control and resting in the powerful truth of trust and perfect peace is not restrictive, confining or demeaning. Rather, it is liberating. It gives us the kind of freedom that is most empowering and life-giving: the freedom not to do but to be.

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