Few things seem to upset people more these days than when I suggest that silence is a virtue. To most, silence seems rather useless. In a culture that measures success by clicks, comments and followers, noise has become the standard currency.
“Make noise!” they say. “The louder you are, the more attention you get. The more attention you get, the bigger your platform.”
So we sit in front of our screens and we vomit noise into the world, and people can’t click “Like” fast enough.
* * * * *
I walk outside and lace up my muddy boots. I pull on my gloves and put my hood up. My oldest son comes outside with me. We pull the collars of our coats up over our mouths to keep out the cold, and we don’t say anything.
It’s a windy evening, and the oaks and spruce and cedar in the surrounding forest creak and groan against each other, complaining about how short these days have become. Through those tangled branches I can see the western sky, gold and pink as the sun leaves this Sunday behind.
I put my axe in the wheelbarrow and bump along the forest path to the stacks of unsplit logs. For the first time all day my mind is silent – there is nothing besides the small fissure in the log where I am aiming the axe. Forty acres of silence.
The log splits in half, each piece falling to opposite sides. My son lifts the pieces and drops them with a crash into the wheelbarrow. He is only nine and each lift of a heavy log represents a small accomplishment.
We marvel at what we see inside the split wood: there, buried in long, porous holes now cut lengthwise, are hundreds, thousands, of large black ants. They are hibernating for the winter – when I breath on a section of wood, the warmth coaxes them to life. Their bodies writhe like smoke, twisting, rising.
Those ants know the value of a season of silence. They understand the importance of waiting. There is a time for scurrying and working and gnawing, a time for digging and eating and moving.
But there is also a time for stillness. A time for silence. A time for waiting.
* * * * *
It’s been two months since I wrote a post over at my blog. That may not sound like a long time to some of you, but I’m beginning to realize how resistant I am when it comes to quieting my own voice.
Recently, when I was in Turkey, I met with a man who has Stage 4 colon and liver cancer. He has walked down to the lobby of life and is signing the final bill before checking out. He prepares to leave all of his luggage behind. More remarkable, he is at peace with this.
I, on the other hand, during the three weeks I spent with him, realized that I am not ready to die. The thought of leaving my children, my wife, this life – it left me with a sense of panic. For the first time in my life, I tasted my mortality, and it was bitter fruit.
As I thought through this anxiety regarding my eventual demise, I realized that a massive part of it came from my inability to embrace silence. After all, what better enforcer of silence is there than death? I didn’t want my love for my family to be silenced. I didn’t want the lines of communication with my children to be severed. I didn’t want to lose communion with this beautiful life.
I recognized a deeply buried fear, that somehow in death I might even lose the God I have spent my life seeking. Such total, irreversible silence is deafening.
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Yet silence is a discipline the church would be wise to practice. We currently use an unprecedented number of platforms to create a previously unimaginable amount of noise. If we’re not denouncing people who don’t live up to our standards or giving our opinion on the latest sound bite, we’re plunging numerous serrated accusations into the backs of our fellow Christians.
But we have to speak out against the injustice. We have to bring attention to the abuse.
And this is true. Of course it is. But this is what I have learned during my very short period of trying to lessen the noise: there is power in occasionally practicing the discipline of silence. When we choose silence, we choose to relinquish control. We are forced to listen unconditionally. A stillness gathers, a groundswell of peace that will eventually overpower the noise.
It’s hard to believe, I know. It seems irrational. It’s certainly counter-intuitive. I guess it makes about as much sense as telling someone that in order to live, they must die.