THE DEAFENING HUSH
Why are we so afraid of quietness today? Only by absorbing it may we gain the resources to flourish.
The way the media pounced on Pope Benedict’s observations in January 2012 about the role of silence in human life suggests he touched a nerve. Speaking in advance of a Roman Catholic Day of Communication, he enjoined people to see silence as a precious commodity and an essential component of human communication. This made people flinch because noise has, like a slowly advancing tide, washed away the flimsy defences we shape to keep ourselves sane. Noise, rather than silence, has become the norm and it has happened without any meaningful public analysis. While we concentrate on the material deprivations that inhibit human flourishing, we lack an adequate vocabulary to debate the intangible gifts that make life worth living too.
Not that there is such a thing as silence. The background noise of birds, traffic and voices on the wind prevail over any attempt to immerse ourselves in utter quietness, though there is something liberating in listening to their hum and chirrup. Mostly we are unaware of their call because our ears are infected with the intrusive and peculiarly modern frequency of white noise: digital music, radio, television, phone and internet. Even the volume at which people speak in public has been turned up, inviting us to eavesdrop on the prosaic detail of human existence.
The facility to drown ourselves in noise is a recent phenomenon. Before urbanisation and technology, people would have had to strive very hard to locate endless hubbub. Any research on the remorseless advance of noise may well show that each new generation is becoming more dependent on it for satisfaction. Anecdotal evidence suggests so. Digital media is becoming an extension of the human body so quickly that implants may not be so far away.
What are we hiding from?
The discipline of answering this question lies at the heart of the debate.
Without articulating it to ourselves, we may be using noise to drown out the pain, worry and insecurity which have always been the human condition. We fear that to address these unsparingly will invite depression and meaninglessness; yet the opposite may be true. Only by facing up to the silence may we gain the resources to flourish. A true sense of identity, place and purpose is embellished by unflinching reflection on our existence, for it is into this perceived void that God speaks.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah plummets spectacularly from the heart-pumping high of besting the prophets of Baal. He retreats to the desert in a kind of para-suicide where God is invited to save him or watch his man wilt into unconsciousness and death. Blessing Elijah with food, water and sleep – essential components in facing up to reality – God puts on a show of the natural elements. Elijah is compelled to confront overwhelming forces of wind, earthquake and fire. Only days earlier, Elijah had used fire to demonstrate the incontestable answer of God to those who doubted his power. Now these elements pass by like an ephemeral mist. Only in the sheer silence of an arid wilderness is the voice of God finally heard and Elijah is commanded to re-fashion the political dynasties of the region.
When we are depleted like Elijah, the first reaction is often to fill our ears with the noise of life. Yet he was not replenished by a rush of sound-induced adrenalin. It was the quiet vibration of the voice of God which spoke into his soul. Discerning the word of God takes experience and practice and even then our sense of it may be provisional. Absorbing ourselves in the surround-sound of modern life makes it as hard to get this sense as trying to hold a conversation with someone in a throbbing night club. Creating a noisy environment is as easy as turning on the tap in the digital world. That’s the bad news. The good news is that taps are so easy to turn off if we remember to.
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