How Do We Fill the Silence

My parent’s house is creepy during the early evening. They are at some sort of social event and my siblings are out as well. My laptop is perched on the kitchen counter, playing the most recent season of 8 Out of 10 Cats as I bake cookies and clean up the kitchen.

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The hours pass by with YouTube videos playing in the background. Sometimes I am doing data entry for my research assistant job, sometimes I am scrolling through Tumblr, sometimes I am doing haphazard yoga, sometimes I am just lying on my bed trying not to contemplate the abyss.

It started with British panel shows – those cheap to make programs where a bunch of comedians play little games or talk about the news. Often times I wasn’t familiar with the news items they were talking about, which made it was very easy to tune out, though I often found myself scrolling back at the sound of laughter to hear what the joke was. I was constantly checking the list of episodes on Wikipedia to find uploads I hadn’t watched yet. From Would I Lie to You  and Have I Got News for You to my true favorite 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, the laughter and bad jokes of British comedians filled the empty spaces of long afternoons.

While I waited for new seasons to be updated on Youtube (why do British TV shows have so few episodes!) I started to fall down the rabbit hole of beauty vlogger’s haul videos. This wasn’t a genre I had previously delved into (I have short hair, no money, and don’t wear makeup) but the soothing sounds and gentle space of those (probably sponsored) videos played in the background as I did little chores or finished up papers. I watched their make-up tutorials and travel blogs, never focusing entirely on the video but rather having it accompany me as I made it through the day.

Now I find myself using podcasts in a similar way. After seeing them on the Amazing Race, I subscribed to Tyler Oakley and Korey Kuhl’s podcast. It doesn’t have a real format, it’s mostly two best friends talking about both pop culture and nothing. I’m slowly working my way back through their 95 half hour episodes, listening to it as I brush my teeth or wait to pick up my sister from her class. Their voices are familiar and joyful and it feels like I am there with them, and thus a little less alone. Listening to them take silly online quizzes and make fun of each other fills the empty space in between activities, saving me from my inner thoughts when I don’t want to hear them.

I think the familiarity is important. It’s like I’ve developed a relationship with these comedians and performers; I know them in this particular and specific way.  When I can’t be physically  surrounded by the people that I love and it’s too late at night to call them, I can always click play on a video or podcast and hear voices that I know talking about pleasantly neutral things with the perfect balance of spontaneity and editing.

Why don’t I just listen to music? Music solves a different problem. In college I was constantly listening to music when I was on campus, carefully selecting different albums for walking to morning class v. lying on the hill at lunch v. walking home at night. Because I now only listen to the radio when driving or exercising, I associate music with travel and movement. When I am stationary, picking a song suddenly becomes too high stakes. Will it be too emotional, too high energy, too much like I am the secondary character in a low-budget indie film? I cannot listen to most songs without needing to move, dance, or run. Music gives me energy, both negative and positive, and sometimes that’s not what I need. I just need accompaniment.

A side-effect of constantly listening to podcasts and YouTube videos without paying real attention is that I am beginning to find it difficult to focus on programs that I do care about. After all, I can’t do this with a podcast like Serial or a TV show like Endeavor, especially if I haven’t seen the episode before. For those shows, I need to pay attention to what the characters are saying and being in the habit of tuning them out to focus on other things makes it difficult to remember the plot lines (my sister is tired of me accusing main characters of being the murderer on Midsomer). When I watch those shows, the intention is to be engrossed in that world, and that requires my entire brain.

Most other times the goal isn’t at all to occupy my whole mind. The goal is to do what I need to do without my brain distracting me. Having the familiar, not-too-meaningful sounds in the background makes me feel surrounded by people I know and care about, makes me feel a little less alone in an empty house on an empty afternoon.

It fills the external silence just enough to quiet the internal noise.

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