One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody’s listening. — Franklin P. JonesSilence helps draw together the scattered and dissipated energies of a fragmented existence. It helps us to concentrate on a purpose that really corresponds not only to the deeper needs of our own being but also to God’s intentions for us. — Thomas Merton
I’ve lost about forty percent of the hearing in my left ear. How embarrassed was I to discover this after years of accusing Tom and others of mumbling? Well, not really all that embarrassed, though I hated to admit I’d been wrong. The loss was gradual so I was mostly unaware of it. I had instinctively tried to compensate for the loss. I was pretty sure my lip-reading skills were very good. Apparently, I was wrong there, also. The hearing in the right ear is still quite good, though, so I couldn’t tell for certain what I was missing. Actually, I’m told the hearing in my right ear is quite good “for my age.” As I get older, there seem to be an increasing number of qualifiers to, well, almost everything – you know, for my age.
Shortly before finding the doctor who would solve the mystery of seventeen years of dizziness and nausea, a physical therapist asked me if I’d been subjected to prolonged loud noises in the past. I was very, very sick with vertigo that day and wasn’t able to think well. After thinking about it for a while, though, I said, “Disco in the 70s?” She thought not. After a while, I remembered that I’d grown up in the newspaper business, then spent sixteen years in the book publishing business with my father. Lots of loud, popping noises as the paper hit the surfaces that folded the sheets. Besides that, we had this monstrosity of a folding machine for the flat sheets of paper used by our press. Many times I went back in the evenings to run that folder. Unfortunately, I’d usually had a few drinks before climbing up on the platform to load and fan out more paper. I never used ear protection and one of the effects of alcohol is that it dampens the hearing. Things don’t seem so loud. So, I just stood there as the folder continued its pop, pop, pop. I had no idea I was creating the damage that would result in Meneire’s disease1 years later.
What started as periodic spells of vertigo progressed to being sick virtually around the clock. I learned to work always nauseated, always at least a little dizzy. At the end I was afraid I would soon be completely disabled. It was all I could do to get through the work day, make it home, and go to bed. The weekends were mostly spent in bed. My body knew I didn’t have to work, so wouldn’t allow me to do much more than stay in bed or sit in my recliner. I was exhausted from the effort of pushing myself all day during the week to work. On the other hand, I’d learned to avoid showing others how I felt. The consequence of that was that there were people who had no idea there’d been a problem or how bad it had been. You can hide a lot behind a smile. I’d lost the ability to tell when I was sick because I was sick most of the time.
My life has been a noisy one. Not so much noisy as in decibels, except perhaps for disco in the 70s – more like constant, random conversations running in my head. I know I never had what could be considered clinical multiple personality complex but there was certainly a large committee with lots of voices shouting at each other on a pretty regular basis. For the most part, the voices were negative. And they were loud. Looking back, I know that I insisted on a fairly constant amount of reinforcement from those around me. It’s not that I thought I was incapable of doing anything I set my mind to, it was that the other voices were constantly trying to tell me I really was incapable, so not to bother. Consequently, I needed continuing encouragement from others in order to take a step toward anything in which I was interested.
The point of all that is that my life was rarely quiet. Any attempt to sit quietly resulted in an immediate attack from the committee.
I got a hearing aid early in 2011. It was an eye-opener. No, make that an ear-opener. I’d been told the hearing in my left ear had been compromised. I also knew it was likely I would continue to lose more hearing. Some of the attempts to control my vertigo also endangered the hearing. When the doctor finally agreed that surgery would be my last, best choice, I knew there was a chance, though slim, I’d lose the rest of the hearing on that side. However, I knew the loss would be an acceptable compromise if we could stop the nausea.
I think it was after the surgery that I finally began to notice my own hearing loss. It’s not that the surgery harmed what was left of my hearing, I think it’s just that the absence of constant nausea allowed me to pay a little more attention to the rest of my body. I suddenly realized how quiet the world became when I turned my head to the right into a pillow.
The amazing thing was that I didn’t regret the quiet. My life had changed. I was finally in a place in my life where quiet was acceptable. I’ve found, in fact, that the quiet was more than acceptable – it was preferable. If silence is golden, given the present price of gold, it’s worth a lot more than we may have previously thought.
I think we’ve all forgotten what it’s like to be in true quiet. Too often at home the television is blaring, kitchen appliances are humming, a leaf blower is roaring outside. The commute to work is loud even if we don’t turn on the radio. Going out to eat means constant music – too loud – intruding on the experience and encouraging the patrons to talk louder and louder in order to be heard. We can’t shop anywhere without being bombarded with the equivalent of elevator Muzak – only much, much louder – sprinkled with announcements to employees, which are loud enough to blow you out the door.
Ever notice, though, how uncomfortable most of us have become when there’s a gap in the conversation? There’s always someone in the group who simply can’t stand to be in silence for longer than a few moments and says something to stop the quiet. It doesn’t matter what’s said as long as something is said. I know I am certainly guilty of that at times. When I first returned to church, some of the most uncomfortable times were the built-in moments of silence for contemplation. Admittedly, even these weren’t very long. I suppose I wasn’t the only one who has a problem with a break in the hubbub. After all, why should we need a break in the worship to feel the presence of God? We’re in church. Surely we already know God is there – why else would we show up? In fact, though, we may be worried that God is keeping score. You know, paying attention to whether we’re really worshiping instead of thinking about what’s for lunch or the possibility of missing the kick-off. Still, it was a beginning. It was a beginning that helped me become a little more still when I was weeding the labyrinth behind the church. I desperately needed to be quiet. But I also needed to understand how to quiet myself without inviting the committee to start in on me.
The labyrinth was important because something told me this was a sacred place the first moment I walked into it. I don’t know why, but it helped me dismiss some of the chatter in my head and feel the presence of God. Don’t have a place like that? I suggest you find one if you value your sanity. Create one if necessary. Lately, I write. It’s a quiet time when I can allow myself to look at things I’ve not wanted to think about, then make peace with them and allow them to go. I think I’m not the only one who maintains a level of noise in order to avoid looking at unpleasant things. We’ve also become a society of busyness for the same reason. We’re paying a very high price for that, though.
Psalm 62:1 says, “My soul waits in silence for God only; From Him is my salvation.” I believe if we’re really careful, it’s in the silence that we always find God. Coincidentally, it’s also where we most often are able to find and recognize ourselves. Not the persona we often mistake for ourselves, but the part of us that arrived with us at birth and comes from God. We arrive with endless potential. If we’re lucky, we don’t forget that fact along the way on our path through life. But, there are many obstacles in our paths that can distract us and lead us in a direction that encourages us to forget who we were meant to be. That certainly happened in my life and I suspect that, in varying degrees, it happens to most of us. We become lost in society’s expectations and just trying to get by. It’s easy to forget that what makes us family isn’t necessarily a bloodline, but God’s vision. We don’t have to agree on everything – that doesn’t often happen even in our immediate families.
The brain is an amazing organ. Along with hearing loss often comes tinnitus. Most often, that’s described as ringing in the ears. I’m told it’s the brains attempt to fill in sound where it no longer exists. For me, it started as the sound you hear when you put a seashell up to your ear. That wasn’t so bad, barely noticeable until I went into a really quiet room. It was even a little comforting. Unfortunately, the sound shifted a few months later. Now, it’s sort of a shrill, high-pitched whine. It’s less apparent when I have my hearing aid in, though it’s never really gone. Still, it’s the sort of thing that’s become a part of what it is to be me. In other words, what qualifies as silence these days had to be redefined. That said, I’m able on occasion to be silent. That doesn’t have to be a complete lack of sound, but it does require that I be able to simply allow the voices in my head to pass on by somewhat unnoticed. If I don’t grab hold of a negative thought, I’m unlikely to make it the centerpiece of my day.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not excited about losing my hearing. Still, I’m learning day by day how to take the lemons of my life and turn them into lemonade. It took seventeen years of vertigo to finally slow me down enough to realize I needed to slow down. Burning the candle at both ends simply meant I was getting burned any way I turned. When I slowed down sufficiently, I once again heard God calling me more clearly. I slowly realized I no longer wanted to ignore that call. I had a new resolve to continue looking for the doctor who was going to be able to help me, rather than wondering when I could finally die and end the pain. My patience paid off.
God speaks to me softly. Discovering a quiet place helped me discover a corresponding quiet place in my soul. I’m pretty sure it’s not absolutely necessary to spend forty years wandering aimlessly through life wondering when God will take you home, lose part of your hearing, or end up with Meneire’s disease in order to find a quiet place. It may have had to happen that way with me, but I hope the quiet places are more apparent to you.
The Celts talk about “thin places” – places where two worlds intermingle. Places where this world and the next are very close to each other. I’ve noticed in the last few years that almost any place can be a thin place. When I allow myself to believe that I have enough right now, I’ve found a thin place – a sacred place. After all, creation is all around us. In fact, creation is us and that means we can find a quiet place inside ourselves any time we’re willing to remember that we’re children of God – creations of God. That’s difficult to do when you’re wrapped up in the busyness you’ve come to believe is your life. The busier you become, the busier you believe you have to be. Parents get so busy trying to be everything and give everything to their children, they forget that their presence is the most important thing they can give. Society (via technology) has pushed children increasingly into believing they must be in constant contact with everyone and everything in order to be a part of. I watch adults out at dinner, each texting or playing on the internet with their phones. I have to wonder why they even came to dinner together if they’re so interested in being in contact with someone else. No wonder we can’t see the thin places around us.
Should I admit that I leave my cellphone in the car when I go into church? I don’t have to silence it or turn it off because it’s nowhere near me. And, somehow, I manage to get through the entire experience without needing to check to see if someone’s tried to call. Makes you wonder how we managed life without the ability to be in constant contact. Sometimes, chatter doesn’t make any sound at all. Texting is the new silent chatter in our lives, unless, of course, we choose for it not to be.
If I couldn’t take a little time to be silent, I’d also miss out on things like hearing the hymn Sing We Now of Christmas in church and finding myself being reminded of Don Knotts2 in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. Something about the melody, I think. It used to bother me when what I considered inappropriate thoughts popped into my head when I was supposed to be serious. Perhaps that’s a sign I considered being serious a little like being dead. How great it is to realize God has a sense of humor and understands how a smile generated by a sudden thought of Don Knotts while in an Epiphany Sunday service can both be a part of worship. If you don’t have this sort of worship experience, perhaps you should sit closer to me. On the other hand, perhaps minor insanity isn’t your cup of tea.
“Be silent and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Do you still know how to do that? I sort of forgot for forty years, but my memory has returned. People who know me well probably have a hard time imagining that I’m ever really silent. Truth is, though, I relish being silent. I rarely have to turn down my hearing aid any more in order to accomplish that. I’ve discovered there’s a quiet place inside I didn’t know existed. And all I had to do in order to find that place was to become very, very quiet for just a short time.
Here’s hoping this new year brings you an abundance of silence.
1 Meniere’s disease is an inner ear disorder that affects balance and hearing.
2 For you younger viewers, a historical note on Don Knotts. An actor primarily known for his television roles as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show and later as Ralph Furley in Three’s Company, he also made a number of movies, among them The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Shakiest Gun in the West.