There is a whole movement dedicated to unplugging from digital devices on the theory that they are turning us all into slack-jawed, empty-eyed, pasty-faced zombies. Having explored that option fully, I recently experienced an extended break from digital connection. This was not due to any virtue on my part. It was in a medical setting that allowed no phones, no laptops, no exceptions.
I had been afraid I’d go stir-crazy. Which I promptly did. Navel-gazing entails some unexpected hazards. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” wrote George Eliot, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
It turns out that you don’t actually die. But the silence initially feels hostile — like the hush of a funeral parlor, or the stillness that accompanies loneliness, or the quiet of seething contempt. For someone of my temperament, it is an opportunity for uninterrupted self-recrimination.
At some point, however, self-recrimination can soften into self-knowledge. What had seemed like drowning in the ocean becomes more like walking along the beach, examining the plastic bottles, cigarette butts and other flotsam of your inner life. The uninterrupted quiet allows us to stand above ourselves and gain a more objective frame.
Among the first nuggets of eternal wisdom you discover is that a day without Twitter is like a day without anthrax. Taking a rest from rage is highly therapeutic.
Silence, admittedly, can also be caustic. It strips away layers of self-deception — the busyness that hides shallowness, the search for recognition as a substitute for self-worth, the use of entertainment as a numbing agent. And silence strips away the illusions of safety. There is no ultimate security from the random roof collapses of grief, betrayal or illness.
So how do I respond to well-reasoned pessimism? That, in a certain light, the dust in my quiet room looks like snow. And the actual snow outside my window looks like the preparations for some vast, extravagant, cosmic wedding. And that the cranky lady down the hospital hall — “I asked for peaches, not pears!” — is really a miracle of chemistry, engineering and poetry that humans are not even close to understanding.
In her novel “Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson tells the story of an elderly minister trying to leave his son an account of his life’s work. There are boxes of carefully written sermons. But as the minister nears death, he focuses on one lesson: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
The courage to see — the settled choice to see the goodness and joy at the heart of things — is not just a religious idea. But if there is someone to thank for it all, there are implications.
As you go through the Book of Kings, you reach Chapter 19 and learn again why the Bible remains in the sacred-text big leagues. “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”
This is the greatest possibility of our quiet hours — that when we are alone with our thoughts, we are not truly alone. That one of the voices we hear in our heads — the one calling us beloved — may be more than the echo of our own desires.
A particular hero of mine is the Victorian-era social reformer Josephine Butler. In her final years of pain, loneliness and obscurity, she wrote to a friend that a “great hush” had come over her soul. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I held out my hand and said, ‘Take this weak hand into your powerful hand,’ and I realized He did. He took my hand and promised me that He would hold it forever.”
This may be delusion or projection. I hope not. Many in the midst of suffering find this prospect the only solid, substantial thing they can hold on to. The rock in an angry sea. And peaches beyond all deserving.
Then, instead of suffering in silence, we can rest in it.