Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
If we reflect for a moment, we cannot help but realize that our great grandparents lived in a much quieter world. Until about two hundred years ago, the loudest sounds many people ever heard were thunder and church bells. The nineteenth century brought factory sounds, combustion engines, telephone and railroad noise. And the twentieth century brought heavy machinery, the sounds of amplified music, office machines, domestic gadgetry, television, radio, computer, compact disc, and Ipods.
So the rarest commodities in our time are silence and solitude. In fact these have become so rare, that we have even become suspicious of those who enjoy them, worry about our children if they seem inclined to be alone for any large amount of time. Any excuse is acceptable for not showing up at a party, except, “I need a little time for myself alone.” Anthony Storr, Clinical Lecturer in Psychiatry at Oxford University, argues that not only do we have an aversion to being solitary, we have even come to believe that it is pathological. We worry about our children if they are loners. We are suspicious of those who are not socially well adjusted. We tend to feel that emotional pain and trouble are largely the result of the breakdown of healthy relationships within family and friendship, and that if we are to know any kind of real happiness we must learn and sustain good healthy relationships. This sounds so obvious to us that it is hard to imagine anyone questioning it.
But he goes on to point out that untold numbers of happy, successful, creative, well-adjusted people have lived relatively solitary lives for long periods. It is simply nonsense to write off as disturbed or abnormal the likes of Descarte, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Einstein. He argues that real maturity, a measure of happiness requires not only the ability to relate reasonably well, but also the capacity to be comfortably and productively alone, to endure, even to enjoy solitude. So the great religions have always insisted on a balance to the good life, the importance not only of community and relationship, but also importance of a measure of silence and solitude as essential to any lived experience of the presence of God in our lives. Think of Moses in his encounters with the eternal on the mountain top in Sinai. And Jesus’ ministry arises out of his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. At the end of his first busy day of ministry, he flees to the solitary darkness of the hills. And in the garden of his last night he separates himself from his friends to spend time alone with the Father. All suggesting that silence and solitude are somehow essential to any lived experience of the presence of God in our lives. Suggesting also that human beings have always resisted such silence, have preferred the distractions of this world to going deep into the soul.
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Solitude, silence. How so? First of all, it would appear that coming quiet is the doorway to serious business with our God. Scriptures abound in calls to stillness before Him. “Be still and know that I am God.” “In quiet and confidence is your strength.” “For God alone my soul waits in silence.” In the first place, it is when we learn to become quiet, still that we break away from all the stimuli and noise of the outer world, and from the inner anxiety and turmoil they induce in us. As one woman commented, “Some days I feel inside like a civil war.” Because when we come to this inner peace and calm that is the gift of real silence, other things can happen. We are available to serious reflection of mind and heart. If we run from solitude, we shut down the possibility of serious thought. Multitasking seems to be the rubric and rule of the day. I can file papers listening to Pavarotti. I have known young people apparently able to do homework with MTV on. Certainly a lot of people jog quite well if dangerously with their Walkman blaring.
But I defy anyone to think, really think, reflectively , critically, creatively in the midst of continual noise. Noise is the enemy of deliberate thought, internal argument, creative imagination. We probably should note in this age of visual media, that noise is the enemy of reading as well. Western individualism at its best has been the product of a book culture, because book reading is basically a solitary occupation that engages question and reflection, that almost demands thoughtfulness and imagination. The Apostle Paul is alone when he writes to Timothy, and he writes, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas – how nice to know that he also forgot things—and also the books, above all the parchments.” How different from the visual media where we simply experience, react emotionally often without any critical distance from what we see … and hear. I have read that at least 70% of Americans do not open a book in any given year. Is it any wonder that in contemporary society the words, “I think,” have largely been replaced with the words “I feel”? How do you feel about this, the news person asks as she sticks the microphone in the face of the hysterical woman.
I don’t know who wrote this, but it is surely to the point. “Pascal once said that most of the disorders and evils in life are the result of man’s inability to sit still and think. Our own age, however, is not likely to be distinguished in history for the large number of people who insist on sitting still in order to pursue serious thought. Plainly this is not the Age of Meditative Man. It is a sprinting, squinting, shoving age. Substitutes for repose are a billion-dollar business. Almost daily, new antidotes for contemplation spring into being and leap out from store counters. Silence, already the world’s most critical shortage, is almost a nasty word. Modern people may or may not be obsolete, but they are certainly wired for sound, and they twitch as naturally as they breathe.”
But without effort at private thought and reflection we cease to be individuals, our own persons in any fundamental sense. Become mere mirrors of the culture around, shaped by the impress of the voices and noises that bombard us day in, day out. People without inner depth, integrity, meaning.
That’s the danger. Why do we allow it? Because in a changing society, shifting world, where everything seems unstable and up for grabs, we find security and comfort in fitting in. Nobody wants to be different, because to be different is to risk being alone. So better not to stop and think. Better just to go along.
But the result of not thinking for ourselves is that we become members of the mass. Whenever we let the social set, the media or crowd shape our thought world, our view of reality, our values, our course in life, we begin to lose all sense of who we are . We no longer feel real, true to ourselves. We feel like nothing but surface, sham, role, the product of forces around us. And we become set-ups for any authoritarian figure who comes along pretending to tell us what we ought to think and how we ought to be.
Only as we learn to think for ourselves, do we develop the inner integrity and independence from the crowd that makes us a real person. The late Christopher Morley once wrote, “Quiet is what we need. By telephone, The press, the mail, the doorbell, radio. We’re micro-organized and overgrown with everybody’s slow business but our own; Pipe it down, chain talkers. Muffle and slow the rapid pulse. I wonder if you know how good it feels, sometimes to be alone. Incessantly loquacious generation, Let yeah and neah be your communication. Before the world comes open at the seams Invest some private enterprise in dreams. In unimpassioned silence we might find (If ever) what the author had in mind.”
So solitude and silence are necessary to the thought and reflection that leads then to clarity and focus about our lives, responsible decision about our future. The only life worth living is the intentional life, the life of decision rather than drift. And how easy it is to drift, rather than decide our own way through life.
The sirens and sounds of that commercial world out there bang on our ears day in day out, telling us to eat this, buy that, enjoy this, travel to there. And unless we take the time out to decide, in quiet, removed from the world, what we will buy and what we will not buy, we will find one day that we have breathed our way through our days simply bouncing off the signals and stimuli coming at us and have never truly lived as independent thinking, deciding human beings.
There is a lot of talk about the need for community in a world where life has become so atomized, connections so fragile and frayed. And most of it I applaud. But we need to remember that there are healthy communities and unhealthy communities. The Nazi part under Hitler, the Communist party in its early days, the Taliban in our time, these were and are extremely strong communities with identity and unity, but at what cost to individual integrity and responsibility? The Chicago gangs are tight-knit communities but to what end for the individual who sells his soul to the gang in order to belong?
Community can be coersive and destructive of individual freedom and integrity. To be our own person means to set our own course in life, with those who honor and encourage that individual responsibility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer at one point warns, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only bring harm to himself and to the community.”
Sylvia Plath in her book, The Bell Jar paints a picture of a lot of people in our time. “I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks or a champion college footballer suddenly confronted by Wall Street and a business suit. I saw my life branching out before me like a green fig tree. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantine and Socrates and Attilla and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” Life rarely becomes focused, decisive, intentional unless there is time for solitude and silence.
Solitude and silence for reflection and decision. And finally, I think, solitude and silence to learn where our strength lies. As long as we can surround ourselves with others, depend upon the presence of others, family, friends, the crowd, as long as we have the tube, the earphones, the screen, the street to distract us and occupy us, we never learn to rest our spirits where they find true home. And as long as we never learn that we remain afraid of solitude, find time alone painful and empty, and flee always back to the social scene again.
One of the critical problems of college students away from home for the first time, the man or woman caught in the throes of a divorce, the widow or widower with closeness stripped from him or her is that they have never learned to be comfortable with themselves apart from dependency upon the people around them, they have gone from home to fraternity or sorority to marriage without ever developing an inner place where they be reasonably quiet and comfortable. As a result they become excessively needy and vulnerable, easily manipulated by others, molded by the fashions and demands of the day. The Psalmist can say, “If father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.” The Apostle Paul can write to Timothy, “…everybody has deserted me. But the Lord has stood by me and has given me strength.” Jesus says to his friends on his last night, “The time has come when you will all flee and leave me alone, yet I am not alone.”
We need solitude and silence so that we may learn the presence and strength of the One who is with us no matter what comes. Beverly Sills is a woman whose life has been laced with disappointment and tragedy. In an interview she was asked how she copes with all the disappointment in her life, being snubbed by the musical establishment for years, the tragedy of having a child born deaf so that she could never hear her mother’s magnificent voice. How did she make it? She talked about what she calls “stillness.” This is what she said: “It doesn’t really come until you’re a mature human being. And I think that no matter what your work is, when it does descend on you, it affects your work. It isn’t that you feel you are more than everybody else and therefore their opinion does not count. It’s simply that you realize that it is not important for everybody to love you. It’s more important for you to love them. It turns your whole perspective around. The very act of living becomes the act of giving.”
A woman by the name of Elisabeth Scollard said it beautifully. “The fairest things are those that silent come; You may not hear the first approach of morn, And though you listen as the golden sum of hours fades into dusk, no sound is born. When the stars dance on high no bugles blow; The footsteps of the flowers fall silently, As softly come the blossoms of the snow; And clouds float by in pale tranquility. No voices herald moonlight on a lake; The silvery dew is still; these gifts are given as quietly as Christ, who for our sake was sent to us, the greatest gift of heaven. Tenderly now, as in the yesterday, He leads earth-weary children in his quiet way.”
I have never quite understood why we think we can somehow manage without learning his quiet way. Let’s try again.
Copyright 2006, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.