On a good day, I find it difficult to sleep on a red-eye flight. Recently, as my family and I embarked on our summer vacation to France, it was impossible. In addition to the standard two to three babies who intermittently scream, we were surrounded on our packed flight by a large pack of college students. There seemed like there were a hundred of them. Talking incessantly. Many seemingly getting to know each other for the first time. They goofed around, laughed, held loud conversations about nothing in the aisle, hanging over the backs of each other’s seats and on each other’s words. It began before takeoff and like the flight itself was nonstop to Paris.
I did my best to tolerate the noise. Remembering I was once their age and imagining their excitement for whatever their group trip held in store for them. I resisted the urge to be that old grumpy guy who tells them to be quiet or worse yet snitches on them to a flight attendant.
Eventually, I asked the two young people sitting next to me where they were all going and to my surprise it was not to Paris – where they only had a layover – and it was not any kind of party trip.
Rather it was a spiritual pilgrimage to Poland. They were all Jewish students from various New York City colleges who would be visiting the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The young man told me it was important for them to learn their history.
Imaging how much of their trip would be spent in stark and somber silence, their present noise ceased to register
A week later, I walked in silence with my children on Omaha Beach and then later among the endless rows of marble crosses at the American Cemetery at Normandy. Hoping that they too would better understand our shared history and the sacrifices of their great grandparents.
There is always such noise around us. Some of it is obviously fun. Some of it is a harmless distraction. Some of it is maddening, even harmful.
To find silence among this noise – a place to contemplate what it all means – is essential and difficult. It can happen as part of a planned pilgrimage where all share in the silence. It can happen when you seek a little privacy or time by yourself. It can also happen within the noise around you.
In the early evening hours, long after we had returned from our trip to the World War II historical sites, my family and I sat at a table outside the manor we were staying. Spontaneously my youngest daughter began to dance barefoot in the grass. Shortly after she was joined by her oldest sister. Our middle daughter played DJ on her phone. All three laughed with such freedom and joy while my wife and I looked on, enjoying a glass of wine.
The music and laughter were loud; perhaps to the point of bothering other guests whose windows were open just above us.
But the noise receded in my mind, replaced by the stillness of my simple thoughts of understanding and gratitude. The world made sense to me. Feeling so lucky and blessed to be in this moment. My sunglasses masked the tears welling up in my eyes – so overcome was I by the purity of the moment. I did not want to be anywhere else in the world and wished the moment would last as long as possible
Eventually the sounds became noise again and I added to them – with my own laughter and bad dad jokes. But the realization that we have the power to listen past the noise to hear what is essential and lasting remains.