Silence and Listening


Yesterday, July 18, was “World Listening Day,” and it might be a commentary on my own failure to listen well that I didn’t hear about it until the day had passed.  The World Listening Project sponsors World Listening Day as a part of its mission to encourage people to pay attention to the “soundscapes” of their natural and cultural environments and to reduce notice pollution.  I am learning that paying attention to “acoustic ecology” is one part of caring for creation and for one another.

“World Listening Day” also reminds me how little time and space we have for silence, which is the precondition, I think, for meaningful listening—whether to creation or the Creator, whether to our neighbors or our own hearts.  Many of us have, whether we know it or not, Silence Deficit Disorder.  Our world is noisy and so are our inner lives. 

Garrett Keizer,in his book The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise, imagines

a contest to determine the invention or the inventor who deserves first prize—say, a golden loudspeaker—for filling the world with the most commotion. The claims of the principal contenders occur within a few years of one another: The Wright Brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903; Henry Ford introduced his automotive assembly line in 1908.  Transportation noises, from highway traffic and from aircraft, accounts for the largest percentage of environmental noise complaints today.  Among neighborhood noise complaints, loud music is perhaps the most common, so Marconi’s radio (1893) and Edison’s phonograph (1877) ought to be in the running, too.  Add to these a whole catalogue of industrial machines, from rock crushers to hydraulic drills, though none are as widespread as cars and planes. 

Ironically, the winner may be standing mutely in the wings.  Though it makes only the faintest sound, the incandescent light bulb, patented by Thomas Edison in 1879, may have done more than any other invention to make the world a noisier place. . . . (pp. 117-118)

With light flooding the night, work did not have to stop with the setting of the sun, and it became possible for commerce and entertainment on a broad scale to happen at any time—eventually all the time, 24/7/365.  The noise which once fell to relative silence at night now revs, hums, drones, and even rages all the time.

Adding to the noise is a traffic jam of words: bumper to bumper syllables, detours made necessary by miscommunication, collisions caused by conflict, and road rage incited by cutting each other off, not making room to listen, and refusing to yield in order to make progress.  The words just keep coming at us, crowding in on us, and pushing us. 

Words swirl around us constantly: round the clock television news and talk radio, stacks of newspapers and magazines, countless web sites and blogs, and endless email, texts and tweets.

The noise is all around us, and it’s inside us, too.  Anne Lamott said that when she was a little girl she was attacked by “drive by shoutings,” primarily aimed at her by people who made fun of her for her appearance. She says she’s still haunted by those voices; they’ve moved inside her mind and heart.  They continue to shout at her, especially in the middle of the night. 

Maybe you know what she means: you sometime hear dark voices in your heart and spirit, too: cries of fear and anxiety,  accusations of inadequacy, indictments of shame, verdicts of guilt, the pounding drum of obsession, and the snarling insistence of addiction. 

With all the external commotion and internal confusion, we need silence.  Our “Silence Deficit” disorders our lives far more than we realize.  It interferes with our hearing the quiet voice of God who sounds hope, sings joy, and whispers love to us.  They keep us from hearing, really hearing, the words of God which sustain and strengthen us: “I delight in you. I forgive you.  I will never leave you or forsake you.” 

Paul said in his Letter to the Romans: “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” There’s a close relationship between what we hear and what we trust.  Listening and experience are intertwined.  It isn’t anatomically correct, but it is spiritually true: our ears and our hearts are connected to each other.   

Meister Eckhart once said: “You must depart from all crowds and go back to the starting point, the core out of which you came.” Eckhart knew that there was silence before God spoke the original words of creation, and that, ever since, silence is the precondition for any genuine hearing that will result in vitality, creativity, and newness.