At the time, March 12 felt like any other Thursday. I went to the office. Our oldest son went to school. We had friends over for dinner and we even experimented with a new chocolate mousse recipe (with Grand Marnier instead of plain ol’ Brandy). Not knowing quite what to make of it, the coronavirus was just one of the many topics around the table. Out of what felt like an excess of caution, we decided not to shake hands or hug when our guests arrived and departed. Hands down, this was the strangest part of the evening. Besides making a dessert with no flour, it was the only harbinger of strange things to come.
And then, overnight, everything changed. Social distancing meant no more going to work, or school, no more dinner guests and definitely no shaking hands. The strangest moments of the night before have now become the most natural. Just like that, the world was thrust into quarantine – a time of relative silence and solitude where many of us have become unwilling monks. While the pandemic has caused costly disruptions to our life together, it has also exposed pre-existing conditions of societal unhealth including our culture’s crisis of attention. I want to consider the wisdom Christian contemplative spirituality has to offer to help us not only endure but perhaps even embrace the opportunities this strange season offers.
A World of Noise
In his book The World Beyond Your Head, the philosopher and motorcycle mechanic, Matthew B. Crawford makes the case that our culture is suffering through a crisis of attention. We can think of attention as sustained focus on a particular thing. Crawford argues that we have largely lost our ability to focus where we will and have become more susceptible to the consumeristic-entertainment complex directing our attention where ever it will. Our attentional ecosystem has been colonized by profiteering interests.
Before the pandemic, it was hard to find a space free of sound and flashing lights clamoring for our attention. In that noisy world, silence was a commodity; going ad-free was a privilege available only to those who could afford it. But when silence and solitude were forced upon us, we found ourselves clamoring for the very same noise to fill the painful void. We witnessed a kind of attentional Stockholm syndrome. In that old world, a break from the noise would have been a welcome vacation but having it thrust on us felt a bit like prison. It is no surprise what happened next.
The sellers and streamers responded to the crisis by offering more sights and sounds and stuff. We saw things like free Shakespeare plays, lifetime access to guitar lessons at discounted rates, and pornographers offering their premium streaming services (if one can call it that) free of charge. These things were pushed, all in the name of encouraging compliance to and easing the pain of stay-at-home orders. Much of this is good stuff, but perhaps we should be more suspicious of the suppliers’ motives (I have a hard time believing PornHub is motivated by such humanitarian interests). It is also worth paying attention to why we demand the noise. Why we are so uncomfortable with silence and solitude? What are we distracting ourselves from by attending to our preferred shade of noise?
Listening to the Silence
This is something I do every year on my annual silent retreat at a monastery. For the last decade, I have spent anywhere from 3 to 5 days in silence at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a monastic community in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Once I settle into my cell, the first thing I do is review their Rule of Life, the covenantal charter that frames the contours of their life together. I always begin with the chapters on silence and solitude to remind myself of the treasure I am after. The brothers describe silence and solitude as a source of restoration, a fount whose healing power does not come cheaply. To be healed by silence, they write, “depends on our willingness to face all that is within us, light and dark, and to heed all the inner voice that make themselves heard in silence.” It can be a frightful thing to face ourselves in silence. What if we don’t like what we hear?
Practicing silence is full of peril and promise. It can be fertile soil for fear, anxiety, and worry to sprout. At the same time, if we are willing to face all that is within us, both the light and the dark, practicing silence can be like tilling the soil of our lives. It is disruptive but this is how you prepare for new growth. It provides us the chance to stop, take stock of where we are directing our attention and the type of people we are becoming as a result. Silence offers the opportunity to consciously refocus our attention and live more intentionally.
The pandemic has disrupted our lives. Despite all the very real hardships, this disruption could also be a gift if we are willing to listen to the silence it offers. This time of involuntary postulancy offers an unprecedented opportunity for a personal and societal re-set. The old world has been dismantled, as we prepare to slowly open our cities and states, what kind of lives, what kind of society do we want to rebuild? Just as COVID-19 has made us aware of what we let into our mouths and nose, perhaps we should be more conscious about what we put before our eyes and into our ears. Few of us would choose this experience, but here it is. Let’s not waste it.