I don't often link videos here. In fact, I think it may have only happened once or twice; however, here I believe it's pretty important.
The above video is for the song "Car Radio" by Twenty One Pilots, one of the last remaining bands who makes music because they love making music and because they can't not make music, regardless of whether it makes them money.
The background: Tyler's car radio has been stolen, and now he must make his commutes without music. The oft-repeated line in the song, the closest thing that can come to being a chorus, is this: "I have these thoughts so often: I ought to replace that slot [talking about the place a car radio would sit] with what I once bought. Cause somebody stole my car radio and now I just sit in silence."
The silence forces him to confront some scary things, since "sometimes, quiet is violent":
"I ponder of something terrifying, for this time there's no sound to hide behind.
I find over the course of our human existence one thing consists of consistence:
It's that we're all battling fear.
Oh dear, I don't know if I know why we're here;
Oh my, too deep, please stop thinking--
I liked it better when my car had sound."
He spirals quickly into the sorts of sublime, existential questions that generations (I'm looking at you, Romantics) spent their entire lives wrestling with. Why am I here? Why are any of us here? What next?
Of course, his example of the car radio being stolen is purely hypothetical--a rhetorical example that is used as a metaphor for what the actual subject of this song is: distraction.
My, would you look at that over there--a distraction! Something shiny, something bright, something loud, something to divert your attention away from the cultivation of thought.
Today's post is about silence, sound, and something terrible I see dawning over the hill.
And Now I Just Sit In Silence
As is the beginning of most posts on this site, let's first get some definitions down. I believe that there are two kinds of silence: a postive and a negative kind. Let's explore it.
The first kind of silence is positive. It is not a pointed silence, but it is an intentional one--it expresses okayness with one's surroundings, comfort with one's headspace, courage in the face of big thoughts, and a refusal to give in to the pressure to be entertained. This silence is not absense, it is potential. Against the background of silence, the Universe was created; it is atop nothing that something can stand. Those first words, the explosion they spawned, created, at once, four things: matter, its opposite; sound, and its opposite. It's the 99% nothing that gives the universe's 1% something a place to dwell.
It is this silence that gives gravity to everything that requires sound to be expressed; in that way sound is subservient to its partner. It is the stronger thing that is communicated without auditory aid, and the weaker thing that requires it. Silence is already there. Sound must be brought on with effort.
It's been said, and I've found it to be true (as somebody who makes, and has made, money playing music) that a good musician is one who has learned when not to play. The good musician bides his time; he waits for the moment when the right pitch played with the right timbre and in the right spot could weaken a heart built stone wall that can typically withstand barrages of spectacular and flashy notes.
Perhaps the sonic blast at Jericho wouldn't have been effective without the six days of silent marching that preceeded it.
It Takes Some Silence To Make Sound
A month or so ago, I saw the rather spectacular guitar player Joe Bonamassa when he came through town, and I will here describe for you the only moment of the entire performance that I can remember—and keep in mind that I sat, enraptured, for three hours.
Joe had been playing for about two hours by this point, weaving in and out of sets, making small talk, bantering with the crowd, and being generally rather phenomenal at caressing smooth and blisteringly good clusters of electric and white-hot riffs out of his instruments. Whoever was mixing sound was spectacular at it: the room felt as loud as an arena but as warm as earmuffs.
And then the band brought it down a little bit. They fell into a groove that simmered down in a decrescendo until Joe had positioned each of us on the edges of our seats, listening for whatever pitches he was squeezing out of his now-imperceptibally quiet instrument.
And then a man yelled loud, sloppy, drunk encouragement.
And then Joe stopped.
He put his hand up to his mouth and shushed him, and it was so quiet in the packed auditorium that we heard the sound slide out of Joe's mouth, unaided by a microphone. A man bigger than life, on a massive and impressively lit stage, making a sound that two-year-olds understand, and we heard it.
The most poignant moment of the night wasn't the two hours and fifty seven minutes of showoffy blues, it was the three minutes when everything was so quiet we could hear the musicians on stage stepping on squeaky boards. I believe that Bonamassa understands full well the power that silence wields, but he's been unfortunately pigeonholed into producing his emblematic blues/progressive rock hybrid wall of sound. I often wonder if, when he gets done—after the applause has died and his amps are cooled off and loaded into the truck for the next city—he sits in his greenroom, dousing the post-show buzzing in his ears with the smooth wash of slow breathing and blanket-like silence.
The second kind of silence is negative. It's the I'm-Mad-At-You-So-I'm-Not-Speaking-To-You silence. It's the silence that says, "I have something to say but I don't know how to say it." It's the kind of silence that births elephants in rooms where elephants have no business being.
Here's my issue with that kind of silence: it has been portrayed as the only kind of silence; it's commandeered the term. The silent character is the one with something wrong with them--they've had their tongues cut out by the Capitol or they've been seduced by an agenda-driven, faux-peaceful cult. We're told to break the silence when it comes to ending human trafficking; we're told to speak out; we're told to speak up.
Silence has become associated, on one level, with images like this:
Do not; I repeat, do not mistake my words here: these are good things, and bad silence needs to be broken at all costs. Shine the light on the darkness, stop whispering about things that should be shouted against, like pornography and domestic violence and big-corporation corruption and Nickleback. But the crux of the issue in my head is this: we need to stop confusing all silence with this silence. And we need to evaluate what we become when we equate the two, even if we don't know we're doing it.
The Yawning (Shouting) Beast
I remember being at freshman orientation and being told to "mingle and make some friends." I also remember thinking whether anybody would ever name something that is good "mingling."
I did. Mingle, that is. We talked in minute-and-a-half increments until the speaker told us to switch partners, and each of the conversations was surpassed in vapidness only by the next. We'd "talk" about the most inane things: the weather, oh, that's a nice jacket, I need to paint my nails, do you like pop music? We'd avoid eye contact, because we're strangers and eye contact is weird.
Let's think for a second how that whole situation would have been switched if, instead of being forced into little squakboxes about crap that doesn't matter, we were told to sit on the ground and look into one another's eyes for the entire minute and a half, not say a word, and switch to the next partner.
Can you see how invasive that feels? Eye-staring is soul-connecting. You inevitably smile at your shared tension; you'd reveal one another's humanity, rather than one another's favorite color of cat. Get this: you'd make human connection. Human connection is invasive and it is personal, and it is supposed to be that way, because humanity is all that some of us have in common. Do you know how difficult it is to hate someone you're forced to sit and engage in something like that with, face-to-face, where no words can be spoken?
It's like seeing this picture and wondering who could hate such a caring individual:
Until you notice that the man is Adolf Hitler.
It is hard to think about Hitler having a family, or about a member of ISIS having a crush on a girl but being too shy to say anything about it, or about a convicted killer weeping on a bed, alone and shunned by his family, behind bars.
It's hard to come to grips with the fact that, of all living creatures in the whole of the known universe, human beings are the only species who has been granted (by what or Whom I will leave up to the comment section to duke out; you know where I stand) the capability of introspection. It's a hard thought because of its massive implications: 1) What conclusions do this kind of power lead us to? 2) What do we do when we can't reach conclusions? 3) What kind of excuse exists to simply ignore our ability for self-reflection, for critical, philosophical analysis, for rational and critical analysis? If we have something that nobody else has, is it wasteful of us to not use it?
I don't have an answer.
These thoughts are hard. Being a human is hard. So we do what we can to avoid it at all costs. The grand difficulty that is humanity is a beast, gape-mouthed and forcing us to either wrestle with it or ignore it.
Let's see what how we, as a society, are doing, shall we?
We have done away with human connection in exchange for communication, and convinced ourselves that it's progress. We can now talk to anybody in the world, after all. We want lots of friends, even though we couldn't tell you what the friends we do have are afraid of. Or what keeps them up at night. Or what thrills them to giddiness.
We have done away with memory in exchange for photographs, and convinced ourselves that they last longer. People pay hundreds of dollars to go to shows with iPhones in hand, looking up at their screens raised above their heads to get a better shot of the stage, instead of looking at, basking in, immersing themselves in the experience they're a part of. They stand in front of the Grand Canyon with a camera in their hands, as if they could squeeze it into a cleverly-filtered 8x10 glossy (Or perhaps to prove to everyone else they've been there; I think that both of these are blasphemic). Beauty does not exist in permanence, nor does it come in abundance; it is fleeting and rare. If we insist that Beauty, a fleeting and rare thing, which can only be glimpsed and written odes to and accepted as the equally gravitous Truth, can be captured and shared forever in Instagram, is that not the very definition of profanity—using the holy in vain?
We have done away with self-image in exchange for public image, and convinced ourselves that it's networking. It is not good enough that we feel at home in our bodies anymore, we must be attractive. And then we must share how attractive we are so that people can tell us how attractive they affirm us to be, all through a blue-lit computer screen that we fit in our pockets and fill our empty, silent, reflective and collective moments checking for new notifications.
We have done away with reflection in exchange for entertainment, and convinced ourselves that it's a legitimate alternative. We create awards for it and applaud those who do it well. We celebrate those "artists" who stick to the popularity formula, who make mountainously selling records, who move us to cinematically and score-enhanced tears on the silver screen for several million dollars. We listen to hits radio in the car to drown out any silence that might induce difficult reflection.
We have done away with cultivated thoughts in exchange for tweetable ones, and convinced ourselves that it's efficiency. A thought is like a tree: it branches in ways you could never see from the seedling of an idea. And it takes time to grow. And it dies, but not before dropping enough seeds to plant new, related ones a hundredfold. Thoughts are breathing things that require counterexamples and wrestling and wind to make them strong. They need to be warred over, thought on to consider whether they're worth sharing.
We have given up the minutes a day we could use for centering, praying, reflecting, or interacting with the people around us in exchange for precious minutes refreshing (Insert App/Social Media here) on our phones for new notifications, and convinced ourselves that it isn't an addiction. I can't tell you how many commercials I've seen come on, red lights turn from green, and lines grow unexpectedly, just to have the pockets around me being probed by twitching fingers who need to swipe something in the time when it's socially acceptable to do so.
I've been every one of these. I still am, to some degree. As soon as I post this, I will be on my Squarespace monitoring app on my iPad to see where it's getting shared, where it's getting traction, and who is interacting with it not because I need to know it or because my income depends on blog traffic--but because I want to. It happens every time; as soon as I share something on here that I believe could, in some way, affect change, I watch it like nothing else really matters.
I've taken some steps to help cure myself of the sound infection. I began several months ago when I started a new D-Group to use my time in the car for Scripture Memory. It has become something of a sacred time for me now: something mundane has been redeemed for a purpose I see as pretty important. I've gotten so used to spending that time in thought, prayer, reflection, or meditation, that now when I try to fill it with sound, it feels too crowded, unnatural, and profane.
I've completed a year and a half without a smartphone and honestly couldn't dream of going back. I do not have the self-control to stay off of it and exist, instead, in the non-pinnable world. It is so easy for me to retreat inside of things, but I have too much outside that needs to be interacted with. There are too many books I need to write, words I need to practice, and dreams I need to dream to use what time I have left for self-indulgence or mindless distraction. It has, honest-to-goodness, taught me to be content where I am, no matter where I am.
I've begun looking up when I feel the pang for something to look at. Or around. Or to my left and right. I was once a feverish down-looker, one who spent whatever moments I could muster trying to get caught up on news or making sure that all questions being asked on the blog were being answered--good things! But they instantly became not-good when they replaced my wonder for my surroundings, my curiosity even for small stuff, and the benefits produced by sitting, existing, and relishing un-interrupted (however briefly it can be) silence.
And in doing so, I've wondered more than once if the reason so many people talk about not hearing from God is because they're adamant about murdering every moment in which He could speak to them. This week, give it a shot: take five minutes when you could be doing any number of things and sit. Just breathe and sit. Don't talk to other people. If you wish to pray, do. If you wish to make mental checklists, do. If you see something beautiful, admire it, then watch it fly away, perhaps never to be seen by anybody but you again. Whatever the case, do all you can for five minutes to rage against the things telling you that louder, more busy, is better. With all you can handle for just five minutes, rebel against things telling you to be entertained and just sit.