I've been writing about silence lately, first in this piece entitled "Silence," and then in my bi-monthly Tiny Letter.(Sign up here to read the Tiny Letter piece.) Today, I'm continuing the exploration here. Enjoy.
We've beaten this assumption to death--the world is noisier today than it's ever been. You've heard the supporting arguments--we have the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the endless stream of opinions on social media, the streaming bits of naked data from naked people across this great wide world. News, opinions, distraction, advertisements, the porno-poison that dances, dances, dances--all of it crowds out the inner quiet. And you know this is true. Yes?
Here's the truth according to me: I don't suppose we're any noisier than any other generation. (Heresy of heresies!) I suppose the noise has always been noisier than it's ever been, at least according to the pundits of any given generation. And though I could support this statement with citation to writers from different generations, allow me to make more practical arguments. Consider the world before the telephone, then consider the mass production and proliferation of Alexander Graham Bell's grand achievement. Didn't the people feel more connected than ever before? In a historical turning point, didn't Maude from Portland, Maine feel more connected to Claude from Portland, Oregon? Couldn't the people fill their lives with communication, with endless distraction? Next, consider the days before the television, before Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings. Wasn't there less noise (actual, by-God noise) in the living room before the evening news invaded on a nightly basis?
The people--we're always inventing new noise-producing techniques. It's what we do.
This weekend I sat alone on the banks of a quiet pond. I watched leaves fall, saw them spin like mid-air waterwheels as they made their way to the surface of the water. Seed pods resembling something like the tufts of the pussy willow drifted on top of the pond, pushed by the invisible wind. A squirrel gathered nuts on the far side of the pond, stuffed his mouth till the winter stores threatened to push out his ears. A domestic duck pecked at my jeans--look at me; look at me; look at me. It was a moment straight from Walden, or Tinker Creek, but in the silence of the moment, I felt very little peace, at least at first. Instead, a profound sense of loneliness settled over me. I felt as connected as the leaves, the seed pods, the nut stuffed in the squirrel's cheek. One day, I'm part of the earth's beauty, the next, I'd be gone.
It's the quiet that ushered in my profound sense of loneliness, the sense that I'm somehow unanchored in eternity. And though I know that's not true, though I know that this loneliness meets its Maker in prayer (the satiating Force), loneliness, loss, pain, doubt, all of these things are the first realities of true inner silence. At least, that's my experience, and it's a brutal experience. When we strip away the noise, what's left? For a minute--if only a skinny one--there is the echo of nothing but lack.
I watch the noise on the internet these days--endless opinion streams, birthday photos, marketing, marketing, marketing (there's always marketing)--and I wonder how very lonely so many of us are. Are we thrashing about hoping to avoid the sneaking sense of emptiness? Are we striving to win validation so that we feel less alone, so that we're assured that we're not alone?
Who knows? I'm not sure I do. But if the divine answer is hidden in the practice of silence and loneliness, I'm willing to explore it.
I'm stretching deeper into the practice of silence. I'm stretching first into the sense of loneliness, unashamed. I'll sit there as long as it takes to learn the lessons spun by all those Bible stories, church fathers, and modern closet mystics--the Spirit of God visits the lonely, if only the lonely will be still long enough to know it.
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