The not-so-quiet place

Monday, October 28, 2019 - 10:26am

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Danyel Tharakan

Silence is hard to find as a college student. Days pass by to a soundtrack of lecturing professor voices, giggling cliques in coffee shops and the deep bass of a song pumping through the floorboards from the upstairs neighbors. Even the library, where we would normally go to seek out silence, is steeped in the constant murmur of tapping keyboards and muted coughs. 

Though on further consideration, it’s hard to think of a situation where anyone can truly experience real, absolute silence.  There’s always the distant roar of traffic, or birds chirping, or the whir of air conditioning. Complete silence simply cannot be achieved in the modern world, at least in any sector of the modern world I’m familiar with, without deliberately shutting oneself in a soundproof chamber engineered with walls to filter out any and all noise interference. 

So why is it, then, that the noise of college feels so particularly loud?

For the most part, the noise feels like a good thing. If I were to craft a map of the various sounds that pass through my ears while I am in Ann Arbor on any given day, a large part of that map would be dedicated to friends’ voices and real genuine laughter, a catchy new song on my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist and professors lecturing on how to change the world. 

But the noise that surrounds us in college isn’t always the kind that comes in through our ears. It is the noise of deadlines for papers on American race relations in the post-Civil War era. The noise of Facebook events for policy talks, networking opportunities and Rick’s pregames. The noise of unanswered texts and the noise of unfinished job applications. 

And this noise can be overwhelming — crippling, even. As a relatively anxious person, it often feels like all this stimuli prevents me from accomplishing even the simplest task  — there is always so much going on, so much to process. Recently, the noise of a coding project, calls about organizing meetings and messages from my adviser about my thesis cumulated to the point where I sat and stared at a blank page on my laptop for the better part of an hour. And I’m well aware that I’m not the only one that feels this way — I imagine that it’s not a stretch to say that most, if not all, University of Michigan students find this atmosphere overwhelming at times. 

And yet, despite the anxiety-inducing aspect of all this noise, I actively seek it out. I queue up the latest episode of “This American Life” before opening the front door of my house to walk to class. I avoid the quietest place on campus —the Law Library — preferring instead coffee shops and friends’ living rooms to do my assignments. Even while studying with friends, I’m notorious for starting conversations mid-work flow to bridge any silence that lasts longer than a few minutes. If I’m in my room, I almost always have music playing in the background — something instrumental if I’m trying to be productive, maybe some old school hip-hop if I’m in the mood for spice. 

Why do I so relentlessly pursue this noise, the noise that also persistently wears me down? 

It’s the quiet parts of college that are the most terrifying — the nights sitting alone in my room, knowing that people are out connecting and laughing and drinking in a world that I’m not part of. When I’m sitting alone in the library and the silence becomes so oppressive that all I can hear is the sound of deadlines stacking up. 

It’s harder to get lost in my own head when there’s so much noise to process on the outside.

But that wasn’t always the case. Before coming to college, my life was significantly less noisy. I didn’t have a ton of close friends, but I also didn’t have the same quantity of deadlines or applications or extracurriculars. I didn’t go to a single party in high school, at least the kind with alcohol and dancing and loud music.

The silence was peaceful, but it was also fundamentally lonely. Silence can feel confining, isolating. 

And then I came to Ann Arbor, to college, and the volume knob turned up 20 notches. 

By embracing the noise of this stage of my life, bad parts and all, I keep reminding myself that this is where I am now — surrounded by people and opportunities and things. I’m a part of a community and now have real friends and real connections with people.

I’m trying to become more comfortable with silence — letting myself walk to class without headphones, studying for a test by myself rather than with others. After a few recent experiences where the noise just got too loud and I didn’t finish assignments, or let friends down, I’m realizing that I need to tune it out sometimes, for my own sanity. Turn the volume knob down a couple notches.

But for the most part, I’m comfortable with keeping the volume where it is. This is my senior year at the University, and I don’t know what the next stage is going to sound like — if it will be quieter, or perhaps worse, louder and unfamiliar. 

So for the moment, I’m embracing the noise. In moderation. College is loud and crazy and stressful, but it also feels right. And maybe someday it will feel right to turn that volume knob down some more, but today it doesn’t — so I’m keeping the sound on.