The Fullness of Silence

…we are none of us very good at silence. It says too much. – Frederick Buechner

There is a growing trend that I have noticed for some time now and it is this: we are a culture constantly surrounding ourselves with and producing noise. It is next to impossible to be anywhere public and there not be a television (or multiple televisions), music, or some form of connection to the internet. Be it supplied by others or of our own doing, we often feel ill-equipped to face the day without noise, be it visual and/or auditory. The socially accepted norm is to envelop ourselves with distracting, noise-producing things, much to the neglect of the world around us.

This has led me to wonder about the why and the how of this and their results. As I ponder these things and their relation to life in general and in following Jesus in particular, I can’t shake the following thought: Our love of noise is equaled by our disdain of silence. Why do we shutter and run from silence? How did this come to be? What are its results?

Liturgies

All of us participate in liturgies everyday of our lives. The rhythms, habits, and practices of our minds and bodies form us in ways both noticeable and unnoticeable, conscious and unconscious. Together they comprise our life and, therefore, it does us good to pause and reflect upon them every now and again.

Whether you consider yourself “religious” or not, you participate in a liturgy. Whether or not you consider yourself Protestant or Catholic, conservative or liberal, Baptist or Pentecostal, you join in ecclesial liturgies that form you in particular ways. It is the inherent nature of life: we employ, cooperate, and perpetuate forms of life carried out through embodied practices.

Peal back these liturgies and you will find a story which each liturgy gives flesh to. Take them to their end and you will find daily habits employed in the workplace, the neighborhood, and in creation. Liturgies never stand alone: they always point back to a communal story and forward to an embodied life.

So, the way you worship on Sunday is a liturgy. They way you move through your workday is a liturgy. The manner in which you grocery shop is a liturgy. All have meaning, all have a story, all have a practiced way of life regardless of these things being known or not.

The interesting thing I find is that many liturgies, both sacred and, to borrow a term from Wendell Berry, desecrated, view silence similarly. They both relegate and/or eradicate silence.

Take a look at many of our modern day Christian liturgies. Many of them have no room for silence, but plenty of room for continual song, sermon, and other verbalization.  We fill our worship time with a parade of noise, yet little time of being still before God. Pomp and circumstance take the stage over as we create one way streets between both each other and God in efforts to create worship services that begin and end on time. This is vital because our communal liturgies give shape to our individual, everyday liturgies. There is an intimate connection between what we do on Sunday and what happens the rest of the week.

Likewise, and not too surprisingly, our desecrated liturgies have little time for silence. For many of us, the moment we wake to the moment we sleep is filled with noise. From morning television, to radio/ipod saturated car rides to work/school, to instant access to an overwhelming inundation of info with the swipe of a finger, we fill our moment-by-moment worlds with noise. We add to this noise ourselves in myriad of ways.

Again, these liturgies form and shape us in ways we don’t always see. Yet in the end they seem to say: We have decided to keep ourselves so consumed that we don’t recognize our need for silence.

Are we afraid of silence?

The eradication of silence within our culture seems to stem from an unhealthy fear of silence. Try and sit with a group of people silently for more than 2 minutes and you’ll soon see; we can’t deal with silence. I think the reason for this is two fold (although there are more reasons, I’m sure):

1. In our culture we are consumed with productivity. We strive for efficiency, potency, and timeliness in all we do. When things aren’t being produced, we often will quickly discard the activity. In regards to silence, we have fooled ourselves into thinking it is an empty thing. Furthermore, since there aren’t any obvious quantifiable results, we think nothing is actually taking place. We prefer to be washed over in white noise than the stillness of silence. We prefer to speak over the silence.

2. When we do allow for silence, we find it reveals far too much about ourselves. Thus, we are fearful of it. It is much easier to anesthetize ourselves with distraction and noise than to face the revealing nature of silence. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are often faced with our own beasts in silence. Again, we fool ourselves into thinking it much easier to move from one thing to next without silence. We think we can enter into the world as non-reflective beings unaware of our own character and actions.

Some Outcomes

As a result, many of us live lives of (somewhat) controlled chaos marked by a frenetic pace, leaving us weary and weathered. We have somehow found ourselves moving at the speed of the noise we are enveloped by. Similarly, we create a host of noise through our talking and writing, our conferences and meetings, our Skype calls and Facebook statuses sans silence. We have fashioned our technologies and liturgies and now they have fashioned us.

Where we once found dialogue, we now have individual monologues passing each other masked as a conversation. Where we once relied on neighborly relationships, we now have isolated strangers settling for fearful waves separated by fences and driveways. Where there once was a season of faithful planting followed by patient growth, we have superseded it with a chemicals and poisons. Where we once prayed, we now shop.

Communication – the means by which relationships flourish – has been usurped by noise.

Why we need silence

So, in a world where silence is seemingly banished, why would we need it? It seems to me that the aforementioned reasons of fear and non-reflective lives acquiescing to noise-centered lives need to be redeemed through incorporating silence into our individual and communal lives.

Silence opens us up to adopting the postures of participation over domination. Participation entails conversation between beings; domination entails pushing one’s agenda onto another. Participation revels in interdependence; domination seeks independence. Participation engenders a posture of patience; domination is hasty and quick to judge. It seems to me that our noise is the product of our attempts to dominate.

Silence gives us a posture of participation resulting in practices of participation. This manifests itself primarily as listening. In silence we are able to listen first and speak afterwards. We begin to recalibrate the order of communication: listening and then speaking. Too often we speak to God, others, ourselves, and the created order without listening. Silence before these beings allows us to hear their voices and then to respond accordingly. Thus, and I think this is key, embracing silence is a means of non-violent subversion of noise, which actually redeems noise. Silence gives us the ears and the eyes to filter out the noise seeking to do violence to us and through us via exploitation, abuse, and power-wielding. Through silence we find the way to navigate peacefully through the all-encompassing waters of noise. We can enter into the noise without adding to it due to the discernment and wisdom we gain by silently attending to God, others, ourselves, and creation first.

This manner of engaging the world seems especially pertinent for Christians. In a day and age where we are often known for speaking first – entering into means of communication marked by domination – we would do well to balance and harmonize our activity in the world rooted in silence. This does not mean we never speak; rather, we know when and how to speak because we have first been intentional about patiently making room for the other in silence. As Jesus was known for his times of prayer and solitude, we too ought to be marked by a decidedly Christian silence.

In silence may we listen and then pray. May we listen and then love our neighbor and enemy. May we listen and then rightly steward the earth. This, I believe, will begin to demonstrate the fullness of silence.

How has silence been relegated or eradicated from your life – both individually and communally?

Who have you engaged with – be it God, others, yourself, or creation – without being silent first?

What am I missing? Tell me about your experience with silence.

A Brief Reflection on Being Unheard

The other day I was reflecting on being unheard. It has been on my mind as of late, especially at work. I work with students who are diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome, and a host of other mental and physical handicaps. They are the less-abled, not the disabled. Some can’t speak at all; others who can aren’t always articulate, understandable, or coherent. One must learn the methods of communication these children have at their disposal; it is often a difficult task requiring much time and presence. Messiness, frustration, and the occasional physical outburst from my students are all too often the results of being unheard.

Furthermore, I am working under new situations where the overall context and climate of my environment are in flux. Any upheaval is difficult as change can often shift us from an ecology of like-mindedness and direction to one of (initial) chaos and confusion. As wrinkles get ironed out, the changes still leave us stressed. Again, as with my students, the reality of being unheard lies at the core of this new stress for me and my coworkers.

And, so I wonder. I wonder how being unheard plays itself out in this drama called human life. The following is what I wrote in my back pocket journal on October 3 as I sat in our sensory room with a student who needed to be heard:

The act of listening is essential to being human. Listening to others and being listened to are reciprocal acts that flow from an incarnational, kenotic type of life – real life. They are the opposite of power plays in that they take patience and self-denial. We can’t listen well while pursuing our own agenda.

Thus, the only act of listening we can take a hold of is listening to others. We can’t force others to listen to us. It take the posture of love (kenosis) to practice listening.

Underlying this posture is an understanding to know the means of communication employed by the one speaking. We can’t listen well without first observing. We can’t make sense of communication if we don’t take time to know how/why others communicate. If we depend on verbal communication alone, we’ll miss the majority of what is being conveyed.

This is especially true in the world of Special Education. If we can’t take the time to inhabit the spaces and lives of the less-abled, we’ll never know what they’re communicating. And if we don’t understand their communication we won’t be able to listen. And if we can’t listen, they’ll be unheard. And to be unheard is to be relegated to that which is less than human. And when we deem others as less human, we degrade ourselves as well.

I wonder how often God feels unheard. After all, the first power play was an act of not listening in a garden. Perhaps we would do well to begin to imagine God as the One Unheard. Perhaps that is what allowed Jesus to identify with the unheard of his day.

How has being unheard played out in your life?

What stories of being unheard can you easily recall?

Who in your life is one who is unheard?