“I’m trying to avoid listening to the news lately.”
“I ask my Mother/Husband/Wife not to turn on the TV in the morning.”
Have you been hearing comments like these lately? I have. And I’m struck by the fact that they come, mostly unsolicited, from an amazing range of speakers: varied in their ages, educational backgrounds, ethnic origins. Taken together, they suggest an atmosphere of concern or anxiety that moves a remarkable diversity of people to come together to present a remarkably unified picture.
Since I am one of those people, I feel a certain responsibility to try to figure out what is going on. What is the undercurrent felt along such a wide spectrum? And how can I rise to the challenge and warning I’ve heard from no less a soul than Socrates, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” On the face of it, the beginning might be to invite the person who has told me of his/her decision, to consider how he/she and I might make some positive response: come together to seek a “better way” of filling up what is wanting in the silent zone we have created.
For me, it all came back to silence, and why, when, and whether I am using it as an option to anxiety; or as the ostrich alternative of not looking instead of analyzing; or as simple relief from dealing with a flood of diversion that interrupts an honest effort to understand. All those leave out the issue of “what next”?
What about this new silence? How can I start to make it a plus rather than simply a minus? I started by revisiting the lyrics of the classic Simon and Garfunkel song The Sounds of Silence that became a sort of anthem in the 60s. To my surprise, a careful reading of the lyric portrays silence as a sort of isolation. Shutting out the din, but not really replacing it with a positive alternative. But I don’t think that is what all the folks currently avoiding the bombardment of news really symbolize.
For many of us, the impulse to stop our ears to one more report of diversion or one more “answer” that has nothing to do with the question hungering to be answered, there is a deep-seated longing for sanity to triumph. Like the green shoots poking their brave little heads above the earth in this urban village on a raw and rainy April morning, there is some sense that we need not let hope be stolen.
In a world more “contained” than the multi-media reality shows that try to convince us that the Emperor has clothes, Emily Dickinson looked out her Amherst window and saw that
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.”
Now there’s a twitter worth hearing.
Next, I went back to a file of treasured “keepers” and there found an essay by the writer Pico Iyer on the Eloquence of Silence that he wrote in the 1990s. Another green shoot of hope. In it he notes that “We all know how treacherous are words, and how often we use them to paper over embarrassment, or emptiness, or fear of the larger spaces that silence brings.” He quotes a young Nigerian novelist who observed that when chaos is the god of an era “clamorous music is the deity’s chief instrument.”
Judging from my own increasingly challenging wish to maintain workable levels of optimism and serenity I am coming down on the side of eloquent silence. I am heartened by Iyer’s common sense observations that while words can push us to “positions we do not really hold, the imperatives of chatter; words are what we use for lies, false promises and gossip. We babble with strangers; with intimates, we can be silent.”
So, I am not going to question or regret my decision or that of so many friends and neighbors to disconnect from the babble from time to time. We are in good company with the Quakers of our world, or the Thomas Mertons. I love that Iyer calls silence “an ecumenical state, beyond the doctrines and divisions created by the mind.” I will trust that on a day when nuclear options – legislative and technological – threaten, it can prepare the soil for the sort of reasoned dialogue for which its opposites create such a profound yearning.