During the battle of Gettysburg, military observers encountered a strange phenomenon. Perched at one vantage, some watchers saw the flash of muzzles and rising smoke but could not perceive the sound of battle. While others, situated miles behind the front lines, were deafened by the thunder of cannons. This phenomenon, which was widely reported at the time, is related to the deflection of sound waves and leads to islands of silence that insulate pockets of the world from the chaos swirling around. Beyond becoming a nuisance for battlefield communication, these acoustic shadows helped to elucidate the nature of sound and instigated a new domain of science.
When I first heard about this phenomenon, I realized it was a potent metaphor for life in the orbit of a disaster. Nowhere is this more apt than in the context of COVID. There are points where the immediacy of death and pain are so concussive that they demand to be heard, and others at a greater distance where the quantity of painful noise has a quality all its own. Yet despite the spectrum of volume, there remain points of insulated calm. In Civil War, these acoustic shadows were cast by heavy snowfall or the slopes of valleys, but during the time of COVID, our shadows are cast by a bulwark of compassion and science.
I experienced this effect for the first time two weeks ago in an event hall filled with a well-spaced crowd. For the past few months, I had been inundated with the steady clangor of sickness—both proximally, in overflowing COVID wards and social isolation, and distally, in the din of rising death counts and sundry examples of social irresponsibility. But as I was guided to a seat and told to roll up my sleeve, I experienced a new kind of quiet. Not silence, but a reprieve from the noise of the world and a sense that I had crossed some kind of threshold. In this new world, there was music playing, and as I looked around, the cacophony of the unending weeks dissolved into a soft glow of something hopeful.
This was the acoustic shadow cast by my COVID vaccination. Much like the hills and valleys of generations before, the omnipresent suffering deflected and diffracted around this single point of solidity and created a space for a newly crooning joy. The example of acoustic shadows shows that even tragedy has a trajectory and just as sound seems too pervasive to be altered, suffering has a physics that can run it to ground. Basking in this first, and now second dose, I’ve experienced a level of joy that I have not experienced in a long time. Here’s to the newly found silence, and here’s to hoping it lasts.