“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.” Hildegard von Bingen
All day long, we listen to others. The constant churn of news and the pithy statements of acquaintances stream across our screens, while music and advertising, Netflix and the buzz of our phones pulls us away from our inner voice until it is so faint we can hardly recognize it.
Other people’s messages, some of which might be well-developed and robust but much of which is vapid and tinny, fills our ears and eyes. We live through others’ lenses, through others’ voices. Recently, I canceled all of my therapy appointments, not because I don’t like my therapist, but because I realized that it was another way in which I was blocking my own inner voice. Ironic, yes, since therapy is theoretically one way we learn to listen; but it can also be a crutch when we let another person’s voice tamp out our own.
I returned last week from five blessed nights of being in silence on a retreat. By the final day, I was beginning to discern a small gurgle, the original source of creativity and wonder, the deep well of my own voice. Now, back home in the noise of the news (“disloyal slime ball”) and school forms, of the dog whining and the dryer singing its end-of-cycle tune, I am trying to listen.
I wonder about this world that is so full of noise. Does the noise — and I use that broadly to describe the fear-laced, hurry-up static that crackles through so much of our daily lives — make us anxious? Or, do we create the noise in order to avoid the silence because it makes us anxious?
In talking with a friend who also has high school kids, we shared notes on how prevalent weed is with teenagers — like, really prevalent; like aspirin prevalent–including a lot of very successful, high achieving kids. We agreed that it’s a form of self-medicating to deal with the stress of their hyped up lives that bounce from one form of testing and competition to the next.
“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” If so, may I suggest you listen harder, breathe more deeply, and live more vividly? ~ Mary Oliver
Few kids are okay with silence. It’s not even a known quantity to them, and when it does occur it’s as unsettling as the sudden soundless gap that arrives just before the monster attacks in a horror film. (The new horror film A Quiet Place plays with this cultural fear.) It can’t be good; that’s the message our society gives us about silence.
Because there in that pond of quiet lives our selves. Lives our real desires. Lives our truest hurts. And none of this — beautiful and difficult — is something the world wants to cope with.
Take schools, for example. Sure, they’re noisy by nature. But I’m not talking about “outdoor voices.” Rather, it’s the noise of testing, the noise of worksheets, and the relentless pace to do more — even if for very little clear reason — that keeps kids (and their parents) so stressed they can hardly pause to question the system or demand something different. Everyone is just too zapped attempting to keep up with some phantom line in the sand.
If they could pause and feel into what they really want to learn, would it be geometry and American literature presented in the same way without a nod to personal relevance, or even to real world application? And if they could pause and think about how they learn, would they want to sit in rows of six and take in facts in order to regurgitate them on a test without a nod to personal passion, or even to the world’s very real needs? I doubt it.
It’s scary to stop and listen. You hear just how deeply broken things are. But you can also find the spring. In geologic terms, a spring is water that comes to the surface from an overflowing aquifer. We need to get in touch with our own geology. Quiet is what will allow us to refill our wells to the point they can bubble over. This may sound like metaphor, but I’m certain — from my own being’s experience — that it is truth.
Silence leads to boredom. Boredom leads to curiosity about heretofore unnoticed things — our breath, the crack above the fireplace, the song of the returned robins. Curiosity leads to new ideas. New ideas lead to creativity. Which leads to greater understanding of one’s self and one’s world. And can, sometimes, lead to rabble rousing of various sorts–mischievous, political, artful, compassionate; but no matter what or how it leads to a way of being that does not swallow anything whole.
So, just this: Listen.
A sampling from Saint Hildegarde: https://soundcloud.com/rachmaninov-1/o-euchari-de-sancto-euchario