Space And Silence Are Foundations Of Excellence Missing In Civilization

Picture symbolizing values of space and silence, derived by Robert Kernodle from wallpaper image and NASA images.
Picture symbolizing values of space and silence, derived by Robert Kernodle from wallpaper image and NASA images.

Missing Intelligence

I have concluded that a basic level of intelligence has failed to develop in many human beings who dominate modern civilizations. This basic intelligence is simply missing. Societies are not cultivating this intelligence. Teachers are not teaching this intelligence. Individuals are not realizing this intelligence on their own. This basic level of intelligence is just not available for most people to apply in their daily affairs.

I do not know whether there has ever been a time when societies have cultivated such basic intelligence on a mass scale. We have certainly cultivated our levels of comfort, our formal institutions, our technology, our knowledge, and our fashions, but we have failed to cultivate our mass wisdom.

Today the huge size of the human population, along with the lightning speed at which modern technology allows this population to solidify and perpetuate bad habits magnifies missing mass intelligence to grand proportions.

What Intelligence?

What I am talking about is something so basic that many people probably never think about it. Not thinking about it is the main reason why there is a problem here.

What I am talking about is the preferred manner in which many people treat physical emptiness. Most people do not even think about how they treat physical emptiness, because they have ingrained an unconscious reflex to fill any hint of it in their lives. More specifically, I am talking about space and silence.

Wrong View Of Physical Emptiness

By "physical emptiness", I mean open gaps in our landscapes and soundscapes. In other words, I am talking about absence of clutter and absence of noise. By "intellectual emptiness" or "emotional emptiness", I mean absence of purpose, absence of motivation, or absence of meaning.

Many people equate physical emptiness to intellectual emptiness or emotional emptiness. This is a grave error. Such an error seems to infect most current approaches to modernizing the world. These current approaches fail to recognize space and silence as critical elements of design that create deep intellectual and emotional fullness. Consequently, too little space exists between the various components of civilization, and too little silence exists in the various settings where people use these components.

Apparently, emptiness between objects (i.e., space) more often means a deficiency, rather than an opportunity (to engage deeply). Emptiness in sound (i.e., silence) more often means an absence of input, rather than a signal (to listen conscientiously). Because of these dominant, erroneous views of space and silence, an unconscious fear of emptiness disables or degrades the mature development of modern civilization.

"Emptiness Is Form - Form Is Emptiness"

"Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness" Japanese script from HEART SUTRA
"Emptiness is form, and form is emptiness" Japanese script from HEART SUTRA

Fear Of Emptiness

In a 2000 ... New York Times news column ..., American architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp (1947–2007) has written:

  • "Horror vacui -- fear of emptiness -- is the driving force in contemporary American taste. Along with the commercial interests that exploit this fear, it is the major factor now shaping attitudes toward public spaces, urban centers and even suburban sprawl."
  • "Every public space must be packed with distractions. Food and flower vendors, musicians, banners, fountains, benches and plants must fill every mid-block plaza. They must be packed with young urban professionals, picturesquely enjoying wrap sandwiches and bottles of Evian water. Otherwise, it is a failure."
  • "Perhaps the time has come to change the criteria for measuring success. Emptiness may not be a quality to be feared. Perhaps the Japanese are not the only people with the capacity to appreciate the quality of a void. After all, there is often little difference between a failed American public space and a Zen garden. Why shouldn't we, too, learn to recognize the value of hollowness?"

In his 2000 book, ... Quest For Silence ..., Jungian analyst Harry Wilmer writes:

  • "America [and I would add "any developing nation"] is a nation of gap fillers and space pluggers. We are individuals who usually do not listen to other people. We talk all the time, even when others are talking. … Our social lives are a mela'nge of noise."

Consequences Of Unconscious Fear

Many of today’s problems seem to lead back to the habit of stuffing too much of something into a limited container:

  • We stuff too much food into our bodies to produce the problem of obesity.
  • We stuff too many conflicting interests into the same public space to produce the problem of noisy libraries.
  • We stuff too many factories and cars into a parcel of land to produce the problems of urban sprawl, littering, and air pollution.
  • We stuff too many words onto a written page (with small fonts and little white space) to produce the problem of eye-assaulting texts.
  • We stuff too many billboards with too many graphic elements into a limited span of highway to produce the problem of useless advertising clutter.

Photo of sprawling city street by Ngô Trung/Creative Commons 3.0
Photo of sprawling city street by Ngô Trung/Creative Commons 3.0

Missing Concept Of Excellence

I, thus, sense that many people are struggling to fill their physical lives in a futile attempt to fill their intellectual or emotional lives. These people have NOT developed a perception of physical balance (regarding space and silence) that enables them to create physical surroundings full of purpose and meaning. Without this sense of physical balance, they cannot delineate partitions and boundaries that define standards. Without standards based on a good sense of balance, these people cannot nurture any concept of excellence.

The world, thus, appears to these people as a place of fleeting, floating existences, where categorical forms (delineated by good perceptions of balance) no longer rule. The world becomes a place that people merely try to fill with stuff to avoid a sense of meaninglessness. In such a world without relatively lasting categories, values do NOT have anchors anymore. Everything just floats (anchorless), with NO achievable categorical differences and with NO set reasons for values. Lacking standards to which they can attach accountability, people no longer anticipate a future that they can shape with dignity, pride, compassion, respect, and personal responsibility.

Can We Fix It?

I fear that this mass problem might be too far gone to fix. Bad habits seem to pervade society more than ever. These bad habits have become the norm. We even embrace them and glorify them, as in our zeal to broadcast heroic stories about overcoming addictions, dysfunctions, and psychoses. Recovering addicts are our new heroes. Reformed criminals are our new sages. Excessive violence and abuse are the favorite subjects of our new theatres. Technology is able to magnify these basic human preferences for sensory stimulation to levels of mass acceptance heretofore unheard of.

Anything remotely resembling excellence-by-design is subject to ridicule, accusations of prejudice, claims of excessive discipline, or charges of unusual creative repression. We, as a society, have become drunk on our dysfunction, to the point that only such drunkenness rules. But try convincing drunks that they have a problem, and observe the outcry of denial.

Until enough people get sick of it, the present civilization will continue to fill itself to the brim with superficial physical forms, as civilization’s inhabitants waste away in self-emptiness.

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