The Sound of Silence

The week we have just begun has found me processing several things, juxtaposed into a whole.

The first of these was learning of the death of Dallas Willard, longtime USC professor and author of intellectually-provocative evangelical works like “The Divine Conspiracy” and “The Spirit of the Disciplines.” He influenced me in my spiritual youth–and into my current spiritual adolescence– with a simple but profound message that Jesus was the smartest man who ever walked the Earth, he lived and taught a perfect example of what the most satisfying life on that Earth would encompass, and living and acting like Jesus did wasn’t just for 12th Century mystics or the world’s spiritual giants, but for all of us. He was an epistemologist that made the argument over decades in the “belly of the beast” at USC and UCLA and elsewhere that spiritual knowledge was REAL knowledge, and ought to have value awarded its substance. The last words of Willard were said to be “thank you.” I would hope to end my own sojourn on Earth with such a thought. Out of gratitude arises worship, and I am grateful that God has sent such magnificent authors and thinkers to help me grope my way through faith. May he enjoy the full realization of the Kingdom of God for which he was so desirous in this earthly life, even as he now sees his master and teacher face to face.

My wife and I have also been part of a “spiritual formation” class at church that looks at the classical disciplines as described by Willard and others throughout the ages. Yesterday’s subject dealt with silence and solitude. Willard himself describes the “primacy and priority among the disciplines” of solitude. “The normal course of day-to-day human interactions locks us into patterns of feeling, thought, and action that are geared to a world set against God. Nothing but solitude can allow the development of a freedom from the ingrained behaviors that hinder our integration into God’s order.”

After reflecting on this we of course raced out of church to get my son to his travel baseball game, a time-gorging exercise in applied exhaustion that we have chosen as a way to enhance his skills and take him to the “next level.” Yes, we are now those parents. There is little time for silence and solitude in the world of travel baseball.

With two ten-year olds and a nine-year old, we already hear the murmurs of parents over future scholarship opportunities for their children, for diving and triathlons and gymnastics and music, as justification for the 16 to 18 hours per week of aggressive training that must begin NOW. I can honestly say that we have no real delusions that our children will get athletic scholarships—that’s not our goal. We also don’t lose the irony that the efforts to garner an elusive scholarship may require $7,000 a year spent over a decade of travel and competitive sports and camps to get to the upper echelon. Much money must be invested in this effort—and could end up for naught—if a scholarship is the ultimate prize.

But that really is not the ultimate prize. A scholarship is a rationale; we actually want our children to be a more perfect us. We enhance our selves—much time, effort and money will go into making us look younger and stronger. As we age, our tendencies toward workaholism grow while we try to prove that we never NEED to rest, that we have the stamina and productivity of someone twenty years our junior. Our enhancements, and those enhancements that gain creeping acceptance that we can rationalize for our children, reflect a terror of silence and solitude. Willard again: “But silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of our life. It reminds us of death, which will cut us off from this world and leave only us and God.” We may declare that we have our best “quiet time” in solitude with God when we are on a twenty mile run, but we sure post the record time on our “Runkeeper” notation with social media as we do it. There must be some noise to accompany our silence. A pre-teen who declares that he spent three hours meditating on God’s goodness in creation when alone in the woods would face a work-up for anti-social behavior and placement on a “school shooter” terror watch list in our society. Silence and solitude are other-worldly and odd; we make ourselves better with mental and biological enhancements to avoid such awkwardness.

Enhancements, which will be the greatest bioethical challenges that face us and our descendants in the decades to come, seem by definition to increase the noise and chatter in our lives. And, in a vicious cycle, the increased noise will make us less likely to sort out whether what we choose is a good thing. Of course we will unwittingly seek the best opportunities for our children to constantly occupy themselves and to be the best, because an unreflective, clattering mind is far more likely to follow the pack of successful people than take the lonely road less travelled. Spiritual formation classes will be left to lament the passing of silence and solitude as quaint anachronisms. And we will fail to appreciate that Jesus, upon whom we base the Christian notion of the “good life,” would never have been able to face the exhausting work of teaching and healing without taking joy in that very “lonely” discipline. As I race to the next event in the enhancement of my children’s future success, may I find that the thing that could enhance their lives the most would be a departure from the noise of triumph and public recognition in the temporal things of this life and a chance to sit in silent contemplation of what will offer genuine life. How difficult and painful, and wonderful, for them if I do.

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