Quit Burying Your Emptiness in Noise and Activity
. . . but the LORD was not in the wind.
. . . but the LORD was not in the earthquake
. . . but the LORD was not in the fire (1 Kings 19:11–12)
I sat in the spiritual director’s office and wept. It was the darkest time I’d ever experienced and I was doing my level best to make my life—and the lives of everyone in my wake—a living hell. I had decided I was done with the church, and I was still trying to decide if I was done with Jesus. The director just sat there watching me while I heaved big, wet, snotty sobs.
“When was the last time you were quiet?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I responded, wiping my eyes with my shirt sleeve.
“When was the last time you just sat quietly with no music, books, TV, or internet to distract you? When was the last you just were just silent? Oh, and sleeping doesn’t count”
“I don’t . . .” I sighed. “I don’t even know.”
It was true. I seriously could not think of a recent time of prolonged silence.
After a long pause he said, “It seems your emptiness has caught up with you.”
Troubling the water
For most of recorded history, you couldn’t get away from it. The farmer, monk, chef, and seamstress all worked in relative silence within the rhythms of the day, month, and year. Gradually, technology intruded upon those rhythms and upset that silence.
Electric light extended the evening and absconded with our rest. Radio introduced constant chatter, and television doubled down on that chatter requesting our total attention. Our ability to play music in our homes has gone through a regular evolution becoming more and more mobile. When I was a teen, I was excited for the ability to listen to a portable cassette; now I carry thousands of albums around with me.
Right now there’s a device in my pocket which allows me access most of the world’s knowledge, music, games, and film—and many of its people. It’s a technological wonder that would amaze people from just 25 years ago. I mostly use it to watch cat videos (my wife will corroborate).
It goes without saying that this is not the daily cycle of a healthy individual
My average day looks like this:
- Wake up and grab my phone and scroll through multiple social media channels (in a timeless loop)
- Get out of bed rush around (while periodically checking my phone for notifications)
- Drive to work with music playing, pull into work and check phone one more time
- Work while listening to music when I can, or just listening to co-workers talk to themselves when I can’t
- Head home listening to music
- Eat dinner with the family (check my phone if I can get away with it)
- Do some writing while listening to music
- Watch television (while checking my phone)
- Get ready for bed
- Climb into bed and stare at my phone some more
- Fall asleep
It goes without saying that this is not the daily cycle of a healthy individual.
Fearing the quiet
I’m not a luddite intent on dismissing technology as bad and dangerous. I’m thankful for the huge steps we’ve taken and the genuine community I have discovered online. But I am concerned about how it’s enabling our avoidance of inner pain.
Do you know those people who seem to carry with them an inner stillness? The ones that seem serene and quietly solid and peaceful? They’re getting harder and harder to find. Most people I know (myself included) are overstimulated and overwhelmed—like the whole mass of humanity is a six-pack of cola shaken and poised to explode.
We scroll through a vast network of news stories, updates, and information responding in ways that seem more conditioned than reflective, our minds abuzz with constant distracted activity. More than any other time in history, we have the ability to stave off the loneliness, sadness, and ennui that plagues us.
Louis C.K. nails the problem here (if you’re easily offended, suck it up—this is profound).
Entering our experience
“I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.”—Blaise Pascal
We run headlong into that void without the discipline to navigate it, and it consumes us
In the most profound way, Louise C.K. is totally right. The Christian is conditioned to hear him and think, “Well, that void he’s talking about in the center of all of us. It’s that God-shaped vacuum. He just needs Jesus to fill it up.” But Christianity alone doesn’t just fill up that emptiness.
Christians are as guilty as anyone else of looking for a shortcut to fill that hole . . . and, despite what we say, we fill it with the same exact things as everyone else.
We may be able to curb that hollowness for a while, but eventually it catches up to us and we are completely unable to deal with it. We run headlong into that void without the discipline to navigate it, and it consumes us. This is where I found myself.
What the silence reveals
The Monks of New Skete nail the issue of silence in In the Spirit of Happiness:
“If living in a monastery has taught me anything, it’s that silence is an inner phenomenon, transcending the absence of noise around us. All it takes is several months of external silence to teach a monk what noise really is. Once the initial flush of peacefulness and tranquility fades, a deeper, more disconcerting noise awakens, rudely showcasing a world previously hidden from you and living inside yourself. It is precisely the external silence, not absolute but something quite natural, that allows this to awaken by teaching us to listen. And when it does, we become aware of the extent of our self-centeredness.”
It’s like the whole of our psyche has followed Marge Simpson’s advice to Lisa, “Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them. And then you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you. And happiness will follow.” Silence is the tool the brings to the surface all that stuff we’ve buried or lies hidden from us.
The silence we need is more than an absence of sound; it’s a break from constant stimulus and activity. It’s about allowing the tangled cords in our spirit and mind to unravel and be stilled. It’s about stopping the constant need to control our surroundings with our actions and words in a never-ending quest to drown out the unrest in our hearts. It’s about facing the dragon of emptiness, loneliness, frustration, anger, hurt, and need head on . . . and doing the soul-wrenching work of letting Jesus deal with it.
Richard Foster said it well, “The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” This may be truer today than any time in history, and we’ll never be deep if we don’t first become still.