Breaking News: You Can Be Passionate and Passive At the Same Time!

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Social events and group functions are filled with laughter, fun, and frankly, lots of noise. But, if you have ever attended any kind of casual social gathering, you may have experienced the feeling of “awkward silence;” the brief moment, typically right after someone says something taboo or uncomfortable to those around them, where sound ceases to exist. That strange, daunting silence has a huge power behind it, and is the perfect example behind the power of silence that Jenny Odell tries to emphasize in the first few chapters of her book How to Do Nothing.

The idea that with silence comes beauty is prevalent in Odell’s fourth chapter of How to Do Nothing. She mentions a musical piece from John Cage’s Song Books in which the pianist ceases to play their instrument and lets the silence make the music. The audience, as can be expected, fills with uncomfortable silence as the pianist sits in focus. Many people think it is a stunt and a joke of an art piece, but as Odell describes it, “each time it’s performed, the ambient sound, including coughs, uncomfortable laughter, and chair scrapes, is what makes up the piece” (101). So, the silence in the blank canvas for the piece and subconsciously, the members of the audience are the artists. They are given the gift of silence and the lack of sound, and they are so used to performances being full of sound that they do not know what to do with the silence they are presented with. Their creativity is shot, and they think that all they are meant to do is observe the pianist and be the audience, when in reality, they have the potential to create something amazing. This silence creates an atmosphere of awkwardness and people who are uncomfortable in silence, and I believe this piece can have a real impact on the audience. It allows people to slow down and think about what they are supposed to be hearing and also thinking while observing this art. Just like any musical piece with sound, it takes observers to another place for contemplation and realization, but in a different way. It allows them to contemplate the importance and value of silence, once they exit the awkward part of it. They have the potential to look inside themselves and ask questions that may otherwise have been avoided if the pianist was indeed playing music. It also allows audience members to participate in a kind of meditation. Observing without judgement, allowing yourself to focus solely on your breathing and guiding your mind in one direction without the excitement of a musical number all are forms of meditation and they can all be performed during this piece. Odell discusses another piece, “[t]his process forces us to notice our own ‘construction’ of every scene that we perceive as living beings in a living world” (99), but I also believe her elaboration applies to the silent piece. When presented with the opportunity to self-reflect, those who latch onto that opportunity may come to realize that there is an expectation, or “construction” of how we should act. The silent musical number breaks that construct and steps outside of the box; that is why it is so uncomfortable for people witnessing it. In order to experience the full purpose of the piece, we need to appreciate what it has to offer in its silence.

The ability to make money off of just talking about yourself seems easy to most, but it comes at a high price. By showing yourself to the world, you give up a piece of yourself and your privacy. Your business becomes everyone’s business, and one slip up, and your career goes in the toilet, to say the least. Then that raises the question: Why do people continue conforming to this type of career? Jenny Odell has the perfect explanation, “The logic of advertising and clicks dictates the media experience, which is exploitative by design” (59). The simple answer is because it is the easy way out. It is so easy to talk about yourself, the people around you, and the world you live in without applying a filter. The problem is, not everyone is supposed to hear every word you have to say. People who are selective in their “audience” allow themselves less room for judgement and more room to listen. If you keep your circle small, you allow your relationships to grow stronger with trust, creating a safe environment for you to share your thoughts and feelings in. Resisting the urge to voice your opinions is a little difficult, but once properly practiced, it becomes second nature. Social media expects everyone to follow the same pattern to become an influencer, but it takes real people to look inside themselves and realize it’s not healthy to be like everyone else. Standing apart is brilliantly defined by Jenny Odell, “to stand apart is to take the view of the outsider without leaving” (61). It is impossible to ask people to quit social media, and honestly, it’s very impractical that it would cause any change. The only thing we can do is acknowledge the toxic patterns and politely decline by saying nothing.

The toxicity of the media can infect people in our own real lives as well. They internalize their insecurities and make everyone around them feel bad about themselves so they aren’t alone in their fear. When in these types of situations, it’s hard to feel safe in being who you are, so you are subject to silence as a defense mechanism. This is the exact opposite kind of feeling Odell wishes to portray in her writing. Silence should be empowering and uplifting, and not something you do out of fear of judgement. You should feel comfortable in your silence, and the attention economy makes you feel the exact opposite, just like toxic friends. So, have the confidence and independence to roam around, alone, and find people who share the same values and interests as you. It will take time, patience, and most importantly, listening. Odell describes her Deep Listening technique as “listening in every possible way to everything possible” (7) and how it has helped her gain a new perspective. Deeply listen to others and the way they present themselves. Be silent, and be comfortable with the quietness of your thoughts. Removing the aggressive people from your life allows you to create a better mental environment for yourself, hence allowing you to gain strength for a better resistance against the attention economy. The peaceful, passive energy you carry will attract the right people in good time, just be patient and quiet.

By acting as an unproblematic member of society, you can mentally disconnect among the chaos to keep your mood and mental health in equilibrium. You can exist in an aggressive world as a passive bystander, but what would happen if everyone around you decided to be passive alongside you? Would the world be calmer, would it be less problematic, would it be better overall? There is no way to tell for sure, and it is up for interpretation, but based on Odell’s work and what she has taught me thus far, I think it would be much simpler. This is a highly liberal environment where people can be exactly who they are on the inside. There would be no competition for anyone’s attention, everyone would just mind their own business and do what they please as they please to do it. No insecurities about what others may be saying behind your back, no worries about what others think of you, just existing. Just embracing silence not for it’s awkwardness, but for its beauty. There would be more mental health days, more meditation practice, and less small talk. It would allow people to look inside themselves and like what they see instead of judging themselves for who they are. People would become more introverted with the abundance of silence and passive interactions between each other. On top of that, people would be more content with themselves, they would rarely want the company of others. They may even find noise and any sense of rush annoying or inconvenient. Though having a life this peaceful may seem convenient, humans are naturally competitive creatures and they need something in their lives to motivate them to survive. People need a reason to exist, and sadly, most of those reasons depend on the approval of others. Restaurants, gas stations, clothing stores, grocery stores, and pharmacies are all necessities that depend on the approval of their consumers. If the consumers didn’t express their approval, there would be no competing businesses. There would be one restaurant, one gas station, and one store to get your groceries, clothing, and medication. The attention economy may be exhausting, but it is the cause for versatility in our society. It allows people to express their differences and explore their own interests, despite the criticism they may receive. If a radically passive world isn’t functional and an extremely aggressive society is detrimental, what is the happy medium?

Odell perfectly describes the happy medium I am trying to express in my writing here. As I come full circle, Odell does as well, “Some hybrid reaction is needed. We have to be able to do both: to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed” (61). Being able to be in two types of mindsets at once seems overwhelming and advanced, but when practiced often enough (just like anything else) it can be accomplished with ease. Allowing yourself to exist in a stressful environment like the fast-paced attention economy while simultaneously practicing things like powerful silence and Deep Listening creates opportunities for a better mental health. Learning to balance your self-care and your financial and social duties is extremely important, and, when balanced right, allows you to feel the best way possible. You will end up having more energy, motivation, and peace within yourself.

Odell’s goal is not only to help her readers reach their full spiritual potential, but to make them think about their own lives and how the world around them affects their daily routine. Reflecting on my past, I focused on silence because I too often filled the peaceful silence with noise out of discomfort in my own skin. Now, especially after reading Odell, I realize the power the lack of speech holds and how saying nothing is better than speaking out. It is more powerful, shows more self-control, and allows people to really slow down and think about their actions. If everyone just stopped and took a deep breath before they spoke, we would all be less hostile and angry at each other. If enough people practiced this form of meditation, they would see an improvement in their lives without question. If people in a position of power or public exposure practiced powerful silence, they would set an example for their supporters to follow and impact lives everywhere.

Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing. Brooklyn: Melville, 2019.

I am a nutrition and dietetics major at the University of Delaware. I enjoy going to the gym, reading, coffee, and hanging out with my friends.