Norwegian polar explorer, publisher, father and author Erling Kagge on the wealth of silence in the age of noise.


Erling Kagge forged his name on taking the road less travelled. A man weary of life’s short-cuts, the Norwegian polar explorer, author and publisher wrote history in 1993 as the first person to walk to the South Pole, completely unsupported. A year later he broke the adventurer’s fabled “Three Poles Challenge” to become the only man to reach both poles and Mount Everest on foot. As he dragged his weary body 814 miles across the world’s largest desert, surrounded by blankets of ice, he tells how he found a voice in the arctic solitude. In complete radio silence, after fifty nights without crossing paths with a single living creature and his jaw wired shut, he discovered the closer he listened the more he heard. He writes, ‘I was neither bored nor interrupted. I was alone with my own thoughts and ideas. The future was no longer relevant. I paid no attention to the past.”

On his trip to the end of the world, he unearthed a rare gift -the command of inner silence in an age of noise. Speaking to our primal need to reconnect with ourselves, Erling Kagge tells of the wealth to be found in turning down the din of modern life and learning to listen again. From the lofty peaks of the mountains to the moments we spend gazing idly out of the kitchen window with our hands submerged in soap bubbles, Kagge reminds us to lean into the silence and dare to explore its depths.

Erling Kagge, Antarctic Journal

This disquiet that we feel has been with us since the beginning; it is our natural state.

TBE: Why are we so afraid of silence?

Erling Kagge: We are afraid of silence because it is where we meet ourselves. I think everyone has this feeling. We may have very unsympathetic and terrible things within us and to face them can be very uncomfortable. It’s not a new thing. The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about the boredom and discomfort of silence 350 years ago, he said “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. Rather than sitting in your room, doing nothing, and accepting your circumstances, you always look for something to do. This is the beginning of our problems.

Silence is always more difficult. I think embracing that period before you settle into the silence can be a bit complicated but, that’s when I think you should go to for the most difficult option, not the easy option which is to check the news just one more time.

TBE: When did you first encounter this primal need for silence?

E: It came to me during my solitary journey to the South Pole. I spent fifty days and fifty nights under the midnight sun, walking into the depths of the most silent, still continent on earth. Alone on the ice, I could hear and feel the silence.

Early on, when I was a child, to be silent was about boredom, it was about being left out, it was a sad place. But, when I started to dig into it, notice the moments of silence around us in nature and in daily life, I became more aware of the importance of the silence within us. Life is all about noise, but silence is more important today than it has ever been.

Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise

Down here I am learning to value minuscule joys. The nuanced hues of snow. The wind abating. Formations of clouds. Silence.

Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise

I think we may be on our way to becoming stark raving lunatics.

TBE: The study that showed people were more likely to self-administer electric shock than to sit in silence is a testament to how uncomfortable it makes us.

E: One of them pushed the electric shock button 190 times. I’m surprised that it became so extreme but it’s true.

TBE: And I guess we see this kind of avoidant behavior every day?

E: Yes, in general people touch their phone 2600 times per day, it’s a kind of craziness. If someone came back to Earth after having not been here for 20 years and saw grown men walking around with telephones to their ears, clutching onto them like teddy bears they would think we had gone absolutely insane. And in a way, we have but of course, this insane is the new normal. Today we are living through devices and, in the past, we were living through other people. This is the noise that surrounds us and lets us run away from ourselves, it’s not a physical noise. Inner silence is about you and I think that’s why people, including myself, prefer noise, it’s the easiest solution.

TBE: Is it just boredom or is it the fear of silence that keeps us looking for a distraction?

E: It’s also about biology. The reason that you find yourself wasting hours on social media or sat googling is that you get into a ‘dopamine loop’. Dopamine isn’t programmed to release a feeling of fulfillment even if you’ve achieved what you sought and craved, so you are never satisfied. It’s what the app industry relies on, it’s a kind of brain-hacking.

TBE: How does drowning out the silence affect you personally?

E: When I do the same things every day, checking my phone, checking my PC and living online, life moves very fast. I’m on autopilot and every day seems alike, it feels like you have done nothing. I also think you get older quicker. I’m 55 years old so I’m starting to go to birthday parties for people turning 60, 70, 80, 90. The old complain about life being so short and of course life is short if you forget that you have been born and live life through other people. But, in reality, life is not short, life is long.

Erling Kagge, Silence in the Age of Noise

Sometimes it makes sense to make life more difficult than necessary. To not just skip lightly over the lowest part of the fence.

TBE: Is that why you believe we should learn to take the more difficult routes in life?

E: Yes, and of course I’m thinking of the Western world here. All parts of our lives have become very easy but, you need the challenge. The times when I have chosen the more difficult paths are when I have been happiest. Walking to the South Pole alone, choosing to become a father, writing books and getting an education. Life’s not about the great big things but the small things we choose, and I do what’s more difficult.

TBE: Why is silence the new luxury?

E: It’s an extreme sense that silence today is for the few. It has to do with class position and society, that surprised me when I wrote the book. People with fewer means are confronted with noise in their daily lives. If you’re privileged you can turn off your phone, be unavailable, maybe even pay somebody to do it for you but, in a different life, you have to always be switched on.

TBE: So it’s not impossible to escape from the noise of modern life?

E: I don’t think it is. We all have to find our path. People say that they are ‘too busy’, ‘too important’ but, you don’t need a technique to discover the silence that exists within you. This silence is there all the time. It’s there when you wake up in the morning, when you are in the shower, doing the dishes, the moment you choose to walk the stairs rather than take the lift. I know people have time to listen to their own silence and for each of us, it has its own language. It doesn’t take much to change, I’m optimistic.

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BIOGRAPHY

In 1990, Erling Kagge became one of the first men ever to reach the North Pole unsupported. Less than three years later Kagge became the first man to ever reach the South Pole unsupported and in 1994, Kagge summited Mount Everest and became the first person to complete the “Three Poles Challenge”. After doing so, Kagge went on to study philosophy at the University of Cambridge and has since written several books on exploration and philosophy, including the international bestseller Silence In The Age of Noise.