"We will make the whole universe a noise. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end." (Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis)
If you think about it, there aren't many public places left where you can escape the noise of modern life. First, there are the ubiquitous video screens trumpeting what I need, need, need from the front of gas pumps to restaurant walls, exercise clubs, department stores, billboards, and even the car next to me --- brief snippets of soundbyte content punctuating a relentless barrage of advertising of the newest, hippest, fastest, biggest, or otherwise "necessary" item. Escape is difficult.
But it's not just images that confront us around every turn, sound is also ever-present. Every store I enter is filled with music deemed appropriate by some consumer-savvy marketing guru, a soundtrack for the buying experience. Somehow I might feel better buying a $50 pair of Patagonia shorts with Fountain of Wayne's "Traffic and Weather" playing in the background, a lubricant to ease my parting with hard-earned cash. Pay attention to what you hear and see when you enter retail stores. There isn't much that is there by accident. It is a carefully scripted buying experience.
But this isn't a diatribe against consumerism but a lament about noise, about a cultural shift that you don't notice until you compare the present with an earlier time. For me, that's the 1960s. I distinctly remember going into stores where they was no video and no sound other than, maybe, a faint trace of muzak in the background, hardly noticeable, more like white noise. When we ate out (which was not often back then), there was music but not volume, not like the cavernous rooms most restaurants are now, with loud music, frothy conversations spilling over from other tables, the sounds of the kitchen and bar, and more. Somehow, I think it's all there as some vain attempt to remind ourselves that we are not alone. It's like my friend who turns her TV on upon waking and leaves it on all day until she falls asleep to it it at night. And that's not uncommon. Noise offers some hollow reassurance to us.
But that's not what God commends. He said "Be still and know that I am God." Be still. Part of being still is shutting up. And part is shutting out, dampering the drug of noise. Only then can we hear what's really going on.
I began on this a little over a year ago, incrementally. First to go was talk shows and TV news and then almost all network TV. I did not want the advertisements nor any of the jabbering, gossiping, talking heads. Ocassionally my wife watches the network news, to "catch up," and I have to leave the room I find it so annoying. I see a crying woman whose home was just sturck by a tornado, and then, after a moment of feigned sadness, the commentator shifts to a lighter story, something like the fascinating story of who is the father of Anna Nicole's baby (solved, thankfully). Such juxtapositioning of the tragic with the inane is bound to warp the psyche.
But this is not a datribe against TV but a lament about noise, about a cacophony of sounds that obscures the purity of a single human voice, the sound a pine tree makes as it sways in the wind, or the way houses hum at night with the sounds of air conditioners or refrigerator motors or the slow settling of foundations or the insomniatic gerbils busy moving food dishes around their cage. Have you listened for those things lately?
"Be still," He says. A series in our local newspaper which began today focuses on the speeding epidemic. People, almost all people, exceed the speed limit in their cars. Guilty. I confess. But while speeding sinners have always abounded, there is a marked change in the magnitude of speeding. People are moving faster, whether they are soccer moms making whistle-stops for kids at school car pool lines or Seth Shapiro on his way to the law office in his '92 Camaro (thank you Fountains of Wayne). Times have changed. Out on the Le Mans Beltline that encircles our city, I find I want to go fast as well and yet in saner moments I wonder at the herd mentality that takes hold in a careening swarm of cars.
But this is not a diatribe against speeders but a lament about noise, about why my car is pulsating from the hip-hop of the car next to me, about why his personal tastes in music must be lived out in public space. It's about why I have to listen to cell phone conversations and observe people speaking into thin air about things I do not want to know, personal matters of "she said he said" kind or about what the problem is with him or her or whoever on the other end of the airspace, about why that sound is in my space. It's about why I have a knee-jerk compulsion to play music when I enter my car, about why I can't be still.
Be still. Well it's amazing what the soundtrack of life offers, the one provided by God. Until this year, I think, I never knew that squirrels actually said a single thing, and now I listen to their chatter as I lay on the ground in my back yard. I listen to the The Great Pretender himself, the mocking bird, with a ever-expanding repetoire of bird calls and no voice of his own, a God-ordained recorder for bird-dom. At this lower volume the grand subtlety of life is evident, the music of Creation. Thank God for sound. Thank God for its absence.
In the end, this is not a polemic against noise at all but a Spirit-pronounced word for me, a quiet tapping on my noisy heart: "Be still. Stop. Listen. Pay attention. And know that I am God." I guess I should know that. I'm hoping I do.