Stuffing the Silence

stuffingthesilenceI have a theory.

My theory is this: We’re being sabotaged. What’s worse, I think we’re being sabotaged so subtly that we’ve become willing participants in the process. We’re not just being sabotaged; we’re actively sabotaging ourselves.

I’m realizing, with a slow, creeping horror, that I’m developing an aversion to silence. I’m uncomfortable in the pauses, in the moments where nothing happens, where I can’t do anything but sit and wait.

I’ve started noticing it with my writing, mostly. When I sit down to write (and yes, I still do it on actual paper), it’s incredibly rare that the words are all there, ready to be written. Here’s what usually happens: I write a sentence. I pause. I start to write a second sentence and then pause again. I look back at the first sentence, frown, and then cross it out. I make it halfway through the second sentence before I pause and cross it out as well. More pausing. More writing. More crossing out. And on it goes.

Most of my writing actually happens in the pauses. In the silence. In the moments where nothing seems to be happening. Those are the moments when my brain is whirring, juggling words and thoughts, placing them, rearranging them, revising them. What happens on the paper is only an afterthought—the end of a much longer process that happens in the silence.

But I don’t like the silence. There’s an incredible tension there—the words aren’t working right, the thoughts aren’t refined, everything feels clunky and unpolished—and the silence is where all that gets resolved. It’s uncomfortable, like the feeling of needing to sneeze but never actually sneezing. That tension, that discomfort—that’s the impetus for the next sentence. And the next. And the one after that, all the way till the end, when the last sentence comes and the thought is resolved and I can sneeze.

My problem is, I’ve found shortcuts. I’ve found ways to short-circuit that tension and distract myself from the need to sneeze. One of those ways is a tiny little glowing rectangle that can connect me to the world in an instant. It’s sitting right next to me at the moment, because it’s always sitting right next to me, because who doesn’t take their phone with them everywhere they go these days?

I’ve discovered that when I hit those pockets of silence, those uncomfortable moments, I instinctively reach for my phone. I want to right now, even as I write these words. Why? Because it relieves the tension. Maybe it convinces my brain that I’ve accomplished something even though I haven’t. Maybe it’s a way to shift gears and forget about the sneeze. I don’t know. Half the time, I don’t even know what I’m planning on doing with my phone when I grab it. Maybe I’ll check Facebook. Or my email. Or maybe I’ll research that thing I was wondering about real quick. It’ll only take a second. Probably.

I should clarify: This isn’t some anti-technology rant. I love technology. It’s incredible. And I don’t think the Internet is the enemy—but I think there is an enemy, and I think he’s far more clever than we give him credit for.

In many religions, meditation is a way to clear the mind of everything, to empty oneself of thoughts by communing with the universe. The Bible, on the other hand, presents meditation as a tool for honing our focus onto God and His Word. For thinking intentionally. For considering and weighing the things God has to say.

It’s a theme that shows up again and again throughout the psalms: “I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways” (Psalm 119:15). “When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches” (Psalm 63:6). “I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, and on Your wondrous works” (Psalm 145:5).

Meditation only happens in the silence.

Not a literal silence, necessarily, but the kind of silence where our minds aren’t preoccupied with a thousand other things. The silence of not being overloaded or distracted with the world and the cares of it.

It’s not a silence that comes easily—or naturally. It’s uncomfortable, at least at first, because we’ll want to sneeze and be done with it, but it doesn’t work that way. Meditation requires us to stem the flood of distractions, to take our pile of “urgent but not important” and say, “Not right now. You don’t get my time right this second. This matters, and you’ll have to wait.”

If you’re anything like me, the stillness and the silence will make you squirm, because your brain has been gradually conditioned over the years to crave some sort of stimulus, some sort of dopamine high-five from your endocrine system. It’s like a wall you can only break down by not moving.

Satan may be warped and twisted and evil, but he’s also brilliant, and we can’t afford to forget that. Meditation requires silence, so he hands us noisemakers. We can scroll through Facebook. And scroll. And keep on scrolling, because there is no bottom. We’ll keep going and going because maybe, just maybe, the next post will validate the 15 minutes we just sunk into wading through status updates filled with thoughts about as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool.

(Fun fact: Psychologist B.F. Skinner did a lot of experimenting in the field of operant conditioning. He would put animals like pigeons or rats in special cages with buttons or levers designed to release food when pressed. Some levers released food immediately, while others released food only after a fixed number of presses, or after a fixed interval of time. Others released food after a continually randomized number of presses or time intervals.

There are a lot of interesting statistics about how the animals responded to those different reinforcement schedules, but what I find most interesting is what psychologists call the “extinction rate” of those behaviors—in other words, when the lever stops providing food, how long does it take to notice?

Animals who received the immediate reward were the quickest to notice when their food supply was broken. If one lever press equals one food pellet, it’s easy to notice when something’s amiss. The animals on the fixed schedules figured it out pretty quickly as well, although it took them a little longer. And the animals on the variable schedules? The ones who didn’t know how many presses or how many minutes it was going to take to get their next pellet?

Well, they’d keep pressing.

And pressing.

And pressing.

The system was shut off, the dispenser wasn’t working, but they didn’t know. All they knew was that maybe, just maybe, that next press was going to score them some sweet, sweet food pellets.

I think that’s fascinating.)

Anyway, where was I going with all this? Oh, right. Silence. It’s hard and it’s uncomfortable, and there are a billion ways to stuff it so we don’t have to worry about it. So we don’t have to think. So many of those ways aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but we can use them to ignore our urge to sneeze, and that’s the problem. You’ll find that Satan is eager to offer you ways to ignore and hide from the deeper thoughts.

Don’t.

Don’t hide.

Don’t run.

Embrace them. Grapple with them. Resist the urge to take the easy way out; choose to struggle through it instead. Let yourself ponder, and think—really think—about God’s Word and who He is and what He’s doing in your life and what He has planned for the whole world.

Think. Contemplate. Meditate.

I promise you, the sneeze will be worth it.

Until next time,
Jeremy

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