Recently, I have been on a post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel kick in my free time.
My newest addition to that shelf was Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World. I can’t recommend that book more as to the foresight Huxley had regarding certain modern trends. Most striking of his cultural projection and analysis was his treatment of the gift of silence and solitude.
“But all the same,” insisted the Savage, “it is natural to believe in God when you’re alone—quite alone, in the night, thinking about death …”
“But people are never alone now,” said Mustapha Mond. “We make them hate solitude; and we arrange their lives so that it’s almost impossible for them to ever had it.”
Mustapha speaks of the citizens of a dystopian future that lacks penetrative thought, wisdom, and high art; but he illuminates a tendency within the heart of fallen man. Solitude is the sacred space in which man encounters himself and his God. So often today, with our Twitter-plus-book-text-email-Xbox-Netflix-rss feed, rather than using our leisure for fulfilling that which is most human in us, we kill time with distractions and noise. When man’s life is “but a breath,” how tragic is the intentional, societal murder of time.
Noise distracts us, makes us forget the boogeymen in the closet: death, accountability, morality, God. Caryll Houselander describes this noise as a fear of authentic emptiness:
Strangely enough, those who complain the loudest of the emptiness in their lives are usually people whose lives are overcrowded, filled with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties, and fears; and these sometimes further overlaid with exhausting pleasures which are an attempt and always a futile attempt, to forget how pointless people’s lives are. Those who complain in these circumstances of the emptiness if their lives are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives ... They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know each beat is the knock on the door of death.
For Houselander, true emptiness is akin to silence: It is the removal of attachment to distractions in order to “fulfill the work of giving Christ life in us.” This is not unalike St. Ignatius’s understanding of man in the Spiritual Exercises, that he is to use the things of this world to reach God, and cast them off to the degree that they distract from our ultimate end.
This parallel of silence and casting off of distractions runs through the heart of the Catholic tradition. When man is left alone with his thoughts, the silence forces him to take stock of his interior landscape. The noise of the internet, cellphones, music, television, and parties prevent us from discarding our self-projections and encountering the depth or shallows of our own interior.
Ultimately, man desires purpose in his life. No one wants her life to end, although we may wish the cessation of pain. Yet, in silence we know we will die, we learn our weaknesses, we encounter our failings. It is only in this self-awareness that we can open ourselves to the fulness provided to us when we unite to God through the Word Incarnate. The Word fills our silence with his reverberation, providing us with solitude and fullness in our silence, and yet in that very solitude providing the magnificent gift: the knowledge that we are never truly alone. In clearing out the distractions of life, we make room for the One who truly matters.
That is a beautiful idea. As Evelyn Waugh remarks through Charles in Brideshead Revisited, “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea ...” I have always had a certain sympathy for Sebastian's insistence, “but I do. That’s how I believe.” In a world of constant noise and distraction, it is very difficult to find silence. It is very easy to kill time doing any number of things. I have Twitter—I know. How can we, now that our Lenten fast is over, make room for that silence? TV and computer blackouts, making time, etc. Those are pretty standard ideas. But what sounds good for a day can easily become another How I Met Your Mother marathon. Fundamentally, we cannot merely change our actions; we must change how we view time.
When people want to lose weight, one of the first things suggested is to record everything you eat because it forces you to pay attention to whether you really needed that 8th Reese’s (you may have). I would suggest for those of us trying to make time for silence—and ultimately in that silence for God—that we record how we spend our day. Taking one Buzzfeed quiz is relaxation—taking all the Buzzfeed quizzes probably indicates addiction. If you know what 90s Grunge Band you are, you probably don’t also need to know what Joss Whedon Female Heroine you are. At least not today.
Now, I am not knocking on the internet. I take my guitar lessons there, I blog there, I take courses there. But I also wasted time on Tumblr last night. (After figuring out What Random Thing Are You?) Yet I fell asleep without the time to say my rosary. God knows better. If we note where and how we use our time, we are more likely to use it well.
I suspect in Heaven, we won’t need to know What ‘00s Boy Band we are, given that whole “know full as you have been fully known” promise. Huxley was worried, not that we would lose our humanity under a dictatorship, but rather that we would willingly surrender the divine spark of the intellect to the immediate stimuli of the senses. I think Huxley was right—and we can only benefit from allowing stillness to imbue our lives.
Man’s unique endowment is the intentional interplay of exterior interaction and interior reflection. For while the man who cannot sense his exterior is dead, but the man who no can longer reflect internally is merely a lower animal. The business of being human requires that we learn how to hold the reigns of both aspects of living. In doing so we will learn to stop killing time and begin living deeply.