Listen. Stop for a moment and listen. Listen to the quiet whirring of the house, the hum of traffic, the movement of others around you, the chatter of people. Listen. Listen to the music you have playing, to the clicking of the clock, to the sound of the animals who inhabit your home. Listen. Stop for a moment and be still and listen.
We are, by in large, a visual culture. We look first. We gage our environment by what we can see. We also listen, caught by the many audible cues that tickle our attention, that draw us from one point of focus to the other, but primarily we see. The visual comes before the audible. If you take away your sight what does the world feel like? What does the world become if all you can do is listen and feel? It is a gift to be able to rely on all five senses (and even more if you can capture that illusive sixth sense). We engage life at the fullest when we can connect with the world with our sight and hearing and feeling and taste and smell. Remove any of the five and life does not seem to have the fullness that we desire. Try to enjoy eating if you cannot smell or taste. Try to navigate through the world if you cannot hear. Try to survive relationships or simply live safely if you cannot touch and feel. These are all important and vital. But I wonder about sight, if that might not be the sense that we overstimulate, that we embrace, that we allow to shape us the most.
Before I go any further I want to stress that I have all five senses (but no sixth sense, alas). I don’t know what it is to lose my hearing or sight or taste or feel. I am sure that some, maybe even those who are a part of the blind community, might say that hearing is more important than sight. Or maybe those in the deaf community might say that sight is greater than hearing, or that hearing is overrated. I imagine that if I lost any one of my senses, but especially sight or hearing, I would feel like that sense was necessary, like a part of me was missing. Yet not having lost anything, not being a part of either the blind or the deaf community I wonder which is more influential and important to me. I am a musician. I need my sight to read the music, to see the conductor, and to even put together the instrument. Yet I need my ears to hear what it is that I am playing, to hear the music that others are making. But not all are musicians, and I wonder how much we have been pulled to rely on what it is that we see to shape our reality. I wonder if we do rely on sight before sound when striving to experience the fullness of life.
Perhaps one of the most telling examples is that when we are called to be still, when the frustrated teacher or parent yells at the hyperactive and radically aware child to be still and calm down, we encourage the individual to close their eyes. When we are being led to take deep, cleansing breaths we are encouraged to close our eyes. When we try to slow down we close our eyes because the visual distractions become too much. We need to just listen and be still and it seems that to do so means that we need to remove the visual.
It almost feels like one is at a place of disadvantage when closing one’s eyes. You don’t know if someone is going to sneak up on you and drop an ice-cube down your back, or if someone is going to take your precious smart-phone. Without sight we feel lost and open to the influence of others in ways that we may not be able to control. Think about this with prayer. When our eyes are closed we are making ourselves more vulnerable, and we listen and we put ourselves in a place where we feel that we are open for the influence of God.
I have been led to reflect on the importance of listening and seeing after reading Anthony Doerr’s great novel All The Light We Cannot See. This is an extraordinarily powerfully written book that considers what it is that we hear. One of the main characters, Marie-Laure, loses her sight at the age of six and has to listen. Another character, Werner, a genus on many levels, is pulled to work with technology and the sounds of the radio and has to listen. The recluse uncle with whom Marie-Laure and her father have to live with for shelter loves to listen to classical music, breaking some of the imposed restrictions of silence. As an act of resistance against the German Occupiers, he broadcasts that classical music so others can hear and find a sense of hope and strength. Even the sensitive friend of Werner loves to listen to the birds, naming each one by song and then sharing their gifts and beauty. In Doerr’s book we are called to listen.
The visual is also a part of Doerr’s book. A beautiful and precious stone is placed in Marie-Laure’s father’s care. It is something that German soldiers look for, want to see, and want to claim and keep. Werner is compelled to watch violence occur among soldiers in training and towards prisoners of war. The presence of the moonlight can is described as casting upon the costal town where Marie-Laure is staying in beautiful and inviting ways. Sight is important for the characters in Doerr’s book, but is different than hearing. With sight people look for beauty but, beauty to take and control of and keep. Marie-Laure’s uncle offers the recorded beauty of classical music to the world to hear. With sight people look for power to keep. Marie-Laure relies on the hearing the voice of someone read to her and her uncle listens to hear Marie-Laure read to him. Sight looks for violence. Sight looks for control. Sight looks to force the world into a place where it makes sense even when it doesn’t. The difference between what is seen and what is heard creates a sense that there are different approaches to life. In Doerr’s book those who rely on sight and those who rely on sound traverse the narrative very differently.
Listen. Listen to the person who is upset. Listen to his or her voice crack, to the nervous energy of the fingers, to the tears or the rage on the edge of the anger. Listen to the person who is scared, who is not sure what might happen with their life and hear the unknown, the anxiety, and the hesitating. Listen to the children fight and hear the sincerity in their anger and feelings of betrayal. Listen to the laughter and the glee in friendship.
John Cage’s most notorious work, 4’33”, is a work that is for any combination of musicians, for any duration of time, and does not involve the production of a single note from the instrument. In this work the musician simply does not play, and all the environmental sounds that occur are the music itself. It is a work of musical composition that calls the audience to be aware of all the noise that already occurs, all the music that is a part of the soundscape comes from that which we hear each and every day. I have performed the work once and experienced the work at least once and each time I am struck by the amount of sound that the audience makes; I can’t help but notice the audible sound-print that we all make. We need to listen.
When speaking to evidence of the existence of God there is a cosmological argument attributed to Thomas Aquinas that calls the skeptic to look at creation. Look at the mountains, the rivers, the creatures of the air, and all that is on the earth and you wonder how such things could come to exist if there were not a divine being. The grandeur and majesty of nature leads one to consider the power and glory of God. What if we were to consider such a notion but instead of with the visual, with the audible? What if God’s existence and presence was demonstrated first by listening instead of by seeing? Listen to the sound of the wind gentle and powerful. Listen to the water falling on the leaves, rushing in-between the mountains, and slowly making its way amid a field. Listen to the sounds of the birds, the sounds of the insects, the sounds of all things living. Open your eyes, look at creation, and listen. Listen and hear that God is quiet and loud, shocking and comforting and everything in-between.
Some might look from God’s creation to the creations of humanity, and wonder what it is that it says about us. Consider the buildings and the streets, the houses and the shops. Look at what we wear at what we drive, look at all that we are. Now consider that with our noise. What kind of noise do we make? Every morning there is a chorus of engines revving and warming up to bring people to work. There is the sound of glee and despair as children anticipate school. Listen and hear the factories, hear the stoplights, hear the hustle and bustle, the news telling us what is important, the music trying to help us forget what is important. Hear the presence of humanity moving through the day.
Hear the music that is created, the laughter, the crying, and all that speaks to the divinity that can be found in humanity. Hear the anger and the harshness, the mechanical and the industrial, the violence and the death, and all that speaks to the ugliness that can be found in humanity. When we listen, we can be aware of much. When we listen we get a sense of who we are.
I wonder what we lose when we fail to listen. I wonder what it is that we are not tapping into when we do not listen to each other. Not just to what we are saying to each other, but to the sounds that we make, the audible sound-print that we have in reality. After reading Doerr’s book I have been inspired to make noise, but not in a New Year’s Eve, random and chaotic sort of way. I have been inspired to carefully consider the noise that I am making, and what it says about me. When I put on a shirt I am careful to consider if the shirt would be appropriate for the day, what about the noise that I make? When I pray, I listen to my breath, to the sound of my body shifting, and to the sounds around me. When I speak and strive to be aware not only of the words, but of the tone, tambour, and speed that I am employing. How can I announce my presence, how can I share who I am with the noise that I make? How can I help lift the spirits of others with the sounds that I produce?
Listen. Listen not only to yourself but to others and to the world. Listen for the discomfort in the conversation. Listen to the gait of someone hurting and tired. Listen to the dripping faucet in a home speaking to the struggle to just get by. Listen to the car shaking and rattling and not sure if it has any more time.
Listen to who you are in the world. Listen for God’s presence in your life. Listen to how it is that you share the noise, the sounds, of the presence of the divine. Listen to the sounds of others. Listen and then carefully create a sound, add to the sounds of humanity, the sounds of creation, but in a way that might brighten, shape, and take part in redeeming creation.