(variation upon a quote from Paul Bogard)
Everywhere I turn it’s there. In the Sanctuary, the classroom, and most especially outdoors. Noise pierces my existence, and there’s no eradicating the pest. For nearly three years I have spent exploring theology and Biblical studies. For nearly three years I have spent learning about the Church and its history. For nearly three years I have spent working, day in and day out in the trenches of spiritual dilemmas, and yet it is only now that I become awakened to “noise.”
The English word for “noise” comes from the Latin word “nausea,” which is, as one might expect, dealing with sickness. In Latin this word refers specially to “be seasick.” Cast upon the waves, a sailor’s equilibrium is thrown off causing violent expulsions and cold sweats. More than an exploration into etymology, this helps us see that “noise” literally means to disturb to the point of sickness. From blaring car alarms, buzzing air conditioners, political pundits, to even lights, noise abounds in our 21st century existence. Escaping the noise seems impossible. Slowly, but surely, “noise sickness” has settled upon humanity.
With seasickness the urge is to cease the cause of the seasickness. We could argue that the causes of noise, like seasickness, are waves that toss us around, up and down, until we become green. But before we turn attention to the waves it remains vitally important to call out the condition afflicting us. Henri Nouwen writes in The Genesee Diary, “While speaking nostalgically about an empty desk, I feared the day on which that would come true. In short: while desiring to be alone, I was frightened of being left alone. The more I became aware of these paradoxes, the more I started to see how much I had fallen in love with my own compulsions and illusions…” The compulsions and illusions, are what I suggest are noise. We are made aware of them only in the moment of silence, of being alone. Yet calling out the noise via silence remains difficult because it is an existence we do not experience.
What Nouwen experienced—his moment of awakening to fear of being alone—does not often occur because we do not know that we need to be alone and away from the noise. My own awakening occurred this semester, and I soon discovered that, though I write much, I am not always alone and honest with my thoughts. There’s always a sound in the distant, a voice in my ear, and I do not choose to listen to the silence. Awkward were my first steps upon the very land we were made to walk.
Yet even when I had the realization of needed silence and noiseless life, I struggled to stop trying to listen. Our noisy world constantly talks, and when we find that existence gone we still try to listen. Day-to-day listening occurs in the mind, but I soon found that silence requires a different listening. It is a listening that places the heart in the mind—silence beckons emotional response as well as critical engagement. I’d like to think Dr. King experienced this when he decided that he had to step up and lead in Birmingham. He writes, “I sat in the midst of the deepest quiet I have ever felt, with two dozen others in the room. There comes a time in the atmosphere of leadership when a man surrounded by loyal friends and allies realizes he has come face to face with himself. I was alone in that crowded room."
When we realize that we are alone, away from the silence of so many different voices, we have to face ourselves. With placated facades and digital imagery we create literal images that do not always match with the actual image. We tell ourselves stories that are not accurate, but they remain unquestioned because they become lost in the noise. Silence, however, makes us face those narratives. Behind no veil of humor, no concrete wall of criticism, and no logic of a theological argument can we hide—we must face ourselves, and listen to what we find.
King would go on to say in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes." The United States is one of the most medicated societies, we draw clear lines of division between each other, and we have obscene disparities in wealth. Yet to deal with the effects, the problems, is only “superficial.” While finding silence isn’t the cure-all to social ills, it would make a difference if those in power, those that castigate others, would embrace the silence that has become so illusive. Saving silence is social justice, as it is there, alone, we are called to face our histories, our futures, and ourselves.
The conclusion I have just reached, however, is far afield from where I began. As I look back over my journal from the past three months, I find journal entry after journal entry obsessed with doubt. Doubt dripped over the pages and imagery, and darkness pervaded my mind. Everywhere I turned, every page flipped, every word written seemed connected to doubt. In retrospect what I called “doubt” held two meanings. The first was the traditionally held opposite of faith. Entry after entry affirmed my appreciation for doubt. The second meaning, however, is seen only now. Doubt was really the freedom from noise. My love affair with doubt exists because I long for silence, for solitude.
At one point I wrote, “Upon this deep feeling of faith I cannot place a claim. The silence of God remains the loudest voice in my ear. For that reason, I hope the tension of faith and doubt never resolve – for both our current novel and life. My faith is doubt. My faith is the center of a circle drawn on a page – filled with nothing but blank space waiting to be filled.” The center of a circle drawn on a page is my desire for silence, and doubt grants that release. Doubt offers me the chance to ask whether or not what I live, experience, preach, act, feel is meaningful, or mere noise causing sickness to my community and me.
The question, then, becomes, “How do we return to the silence?” If we hang onto the metaphor of seasickness, there are two options: first, we get off the boat; or, we calm the waves. I’ve previously suggested that we need to get off the boat, off the torment of waves. This, we certainly need to do. Yet, like sailors, we cannot live our lives on dry land. Eventually we must return to the waves. Calming the waves, however, seems difficult. And, save the Messianic overtones, I fear that is a task so societally engrained that calming the waves would take all but draining the seven oceans. Even as I ponder these words I fear that there is no solution—unless we doubt whether or not we are destined to be sailors upon the seas.
Parallel to what I’m calling for is the work of Paul Bogard and light—or lack thereof. Bogard valiantly fights for that mighty, yet meek, warrior conquering daylight 100% of the time. As electricity crept on the societal scene, we have slowly, but surely, suppressed darkness to the best of our ability. Losing sight, we are, of the heavens, and not only that, but our health, our peace, and even our silence. We now think that light is good, and we are meant to live in nearly permanently lit existence. However, we have forgotten that God separated light from darkness, and called them good—both of them. We are living a false reality if we think one “out shines” the other. In my last journal entry I “re-wrote” Bogard’s closing words to say,
"How upside down this world where what was once a most common human experience has become most rare. Where a child might grow into adulthood without ever having seen the Milky Way and never feel as though lifted from earth into surrounding stars. Where most of us go into doubt armed not only with “faith” but with so much faith that we never know that doubt, too, “blooms and sings.” How right it feels to be in this place, standing with dozens of others, gazing at the Milky Way. How right it feels to know a true night sky, how right to know doubt."
For me, doubt, silence, and light pollution come together in the theme of noise. We have so much noise that we enter moments of silence never knowing that silence actually “blooms and sings.” If we fail to unplug the lights, and with it silence, we fail to hear something deeper within. We fail to meet the deepest parts of us, and hear what our true voices tell us. Whether through writing, or praying, or simply sitting we must find silence, lest the noise subsume our voices.
This semester I have learned more about myself than I could have imagined. I have come face to face with my own narrative, but my whole self was required. I had to stop listening to the voices of technology, light bulbs, and humming appliances. I had to doubt the technological advances, and returning to the still small voice within me. I take solace, though, in knowing that noise has plagued humanity for millennia—even the Psalmist writes that God calls for stillness (Ps 46:10). We, humanity, are not called to be sailors upon the seas of silence, but nomads in the wilderness of God’s still-whispering creation. The struggle continues, however, to quiet the noise, and turn the volume up on the silence.
So, here I am, pecking on this keyboard, the soundtrack of a running toilet in the background, and my foot tapping to the sound of a blues-playing Clarinet. I’ve learned this semester, that there comes a moment when we have to leave the work and enter into silence. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll do that now. My hope is that you will to. After all, according to Simon & Garfunkel, silence is the vocation of the prophet:
The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence.