Why I Can’t Shut Up

According to Gyle Brandreth’s The Joy of Lex, by the time of their death the average American will have uttered around 860,341,500 words. As of 2011, Twitter reported that its users were posting 200 million tweets every single day. The year previously, 750,000 new music albums were released in the US alone. Wordpress.com reports that it’s site hosts an average of 41.7 million new blog posts each month.

No matter what our vocation, all humans are in the business of talking; we’re all dots somewhere along the pendulum of self-expression. Although this may not always be articulated by literal verbal expression, vibrating vocal chords and a moving tongue, the world of homo sapiens is not a silent one; it never has been. For whether it is through stirring speeches, transcendent poetry, athletic feats or sexual acts, our existence is consumed with the compulsion to express ourselves.

And I’m no different.

I step out my door and plug in my headphones. I take out my phone to send a text , post a photo, update my status. I hit a few ‘like’ buttons. I comment on a post about abortion, an athlete who was traded to another team, a celebrity suicide. I answer a call from my wife. I reply to her question, recall a minuet detail I’d forgotten to mention before leaving the house, say: “I love you” and hang up. I jot a quick note in my calendar to pick up some salad and milk on the way home. All this happens while I am waiting for the bus.

The act of expressing oneself, in whatever form that may be, is a compulsion to break forth into the silence that surrounds us. Otherwise the silence overwhelms us. And anyone who has ever been alone for long periods of time against his or her will can tell you: silence is terrifying.

Stormy Weather- painting by Arena Shawn
Stormy Weather by Arena Shawn

The compulsion to speak, to create, to express, to write, to sing, to dance, to jump, to dive, to make love, to paint and rap, the compulsion to launch words into the heavy surrounding silence us is a compulsion to hold our lights out into the void that would otherwise engulf us. We are terrified of that void, we cannot contain it. It creeps in on us the moment we close our mouths, the moment we turn off our TVs, unplug the phones and turn down our speakers.

It’s there.

Always there.

Waiting.

And the terrifying reality is that the void is not just there, it is within us as well. And the void is something so terrifying, so remarkable, so unknown, so beautiful, that we must speak, we must express ourselves, to keep it at bay. We must plug in our phones, scream our lungs out, play the guitar, paint the sunset, absorb a whole season of ‘Friends’ while texting our own friends. To be silent would be to entertain the void, to stop talking would be to let it overcome us and work it’s way in us, through us and over us. And that could be wonderful. But it would be also be terrifying. More terrifying than we can imagine.

And so I cannot keep quiet.

I cannot shut up.

Job Answers God by William Blake
Job Answers God by William Blake

For in the beginning was:

 a

 a

silence.

nothingness.

 

void

 

But was-ness nonetheless.

was-ness amidst the silence

something unnamable

something we cannot label

something we cannot articulate, or describe

 

It was. He was. A Word was.

A single Word amidst the Silence.

With God. Was God. Logos. The wind, spirit, moving over the water. Hovering.

  1. Single. Word.

A Single Word with the Silence.

And then God spoke and it happened. He spoke, it happened. He spoke, it happened. Six times. God rested; it remained. He did not speak.

Silence.

Job implored God and yet, for thirty-four chapters, no answer is recorded.

Silence.

God revealed himself to Elijah in a gentle whisper following quake and fire.

 Silence.

“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

Silence.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His Son cried out.

Silence.

The Scriptures are not silent on the topic of silence. The absence of speech haunts the pages and seep between the lines we read. Jesus is silent on numerous crucial topics. For every example in the Bible of someone crying out to God and actually receiving a reply, there exists more pertinent example of a silence in response.

“…lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction,” the prophet Malachi pens in the closing words of his book. And for 400 years God struck the land with a decree of silence.

The Ebola virus threatens to decimate populations.

God, where are you? 

An uncle rapes his 5 year-old-niece over and over again, threatening her into secrecy and shame. She cries out to the God of felt boards and Sunday school volunteers.

Why? Are you there? Is anyone?

A twenty-year-old soldier holds the muzzle of his rifle to the head of prisoner, a terrorist. No one is looking and three days ago he had to drag half of his friend from a burning Humvee because of these bastards.

God, only you can judge me.

And yet.

Silence.

Is it just a void?

Or does the answer come in a couple making love on their honeymoon, a Twitter feed gone viral, a six-year-old dancing before her proud parents, the winning touchdown at a football game?

Does the answer come in my inability to shut up?

Elijah in the Wilderness by Frederic Leighton
Elijah in the Wilderness by Frederic Leighton

Is God silent or is He speaking? Is the Word that spoke still speaking through the Creation it spoke into being, the creature it made in it’s own image? Is the Silence the surrounds it the God that holds it all together?

For if silence speaks to the non-existence of God then there is no justification for our fear of silence, and no proper understanding for our compulsion towards self-expression. Pragmatic evolution cannot explain the compulsion of humanity to produce billions of megapixels of information every second, to make love and call it ‘love’, to write novels and plays and symphonies and ballads, for the same desperate mind to pen a comedy, a tragedy and, finally, a suicide note.

If the Silence is nothing beyond a void, then there should be no reason why I can just shut up.

But if Silence is something more than a void, then expression, human expression, is the fulfillment of Silence working itself out, in and through the instruments of it’s being. This simple truth finds it’s home in lighters held high during a summer concert, tears at the end of a moving film, an orgasm coupled with a whisper of “je t’aime” and the feeling of treasured novel gripped in one’s hands. We are compelled by the power of words, moved by the ability to express ourselves, but when words fail us we yield to Silence.  And the Silence terrifies but also captivates us.  Because Silence is something more, something overpowering, something mysterious, something terrible, wonderful, fearful and unknown. Something we cannot contain, something to be worshipped.

Our words are not a shout into the void but a shout into the Silence that was, the Silence that is, the Silence that permeates the everything we are, were and always will be. The Silence which created us, created everything and, in the end, will renew everything. Our words do not drift endlessly but are absorbed by the Silence.

For if not into the arms of Silence, then where do our words go? A mere void cannot contain them; they have too much weight.

All words are prayers, the question is whether or not we know if we are making them. God’s spam box is never full.

Which is why an encounter with this Silence is terrifying. Because in the Silence we are suddenly aware of the violence, the might, the power, the eternality, the was, the is, the am, the great, the humble, the desolate, the horrific, the loving, the simple, the complex. In the Silence we encounter the Everything, the Final Word To End All Words. And we are not ready.

In the silence, I can shut up.

But we are not ready for the final word, the end for the necessity of expression, for venturing into the void. There is an alpha and there is an omega. The Christian creation narrative insists on a Final Word being spoken and the ability to embrace the Silence flows from the power of that word. After God spoke the word, he rested. All was well. With a word on the cross, Christ proclaimed: “it is finished”. And he breathed his last. The final word to end all words. All will be well again.

The final word to points to the silence for which we all long, the silence of all of our Twitter feeds, political commentaries, eviction notices, parodies, aching hearts and flowing tears. In that day there will be no need for these, expression will be a moot point because we see the silence as we see the sun, as though we’re seeing our words, our paintings, our blogs, our dances and our lovers for the first time. The final word will have been spoken, and the first word begun.

But until that day, we talk. We tweet, we blog, we preach, we cheer, we laugh, run we cry, we fight, we punch, we dance, we hobble, we write, we try.

And I am no different.

Because for now, I can’t shut up.

a

a

a

 

 

 

 

 

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The Art of Still

The other morning, I was running on some trails near my campus, with Taylor Swift’s new album blaring on my IPod

when I was struck with by an odd notion. In the midst of the woods, I removed my headphones and slowed my pace to a walk. I noted the peace of the forest, the intricacies of every nook and cranny in the space around me. I walked along for a little while before I found myself, for no other reason than Divine beckoning, sitting on a log just off the trail. It was a blessed moment of participation in the art of still.

 When discussing the notion of art, there are several categories that come to mind: there’s the art of music – whether it’s just a man with his guitar  or a group of musicians playing with synchronized lights and effects.  There’s the art of painting, the art of sculpture, or even the art created by someone with light and a pile of trash.

If you don’t think this is awesome then we can’t be friends. Sorry to be so harsh.

Furthermore, a case can be argued for the art of physical acts: like yoga or dancing, mimes on a street corners, runners in a race or freestyle skiing.

While I’m utilizing a loose definition for the idea of “art” in my examples (and randomness to boot) it must be observed that all the forms I offer up as an art involve the act of doing something. Inasmuch, most people can generally agree that, as artistic realms go, they are all a form of creative expression; be it a writer with a pen, singer with a guitar, painter with a brush, or athlete with a set of skis; all these acts are the explosion of a creative nature from the inside out; they are expressions of something from within to the greater cosmos. If we operate from this definition, then we have to accept that art requires action.

But while all this holds some truth, it also denies the role that God plays within art, and the intrinsic and inescapable reality of a Divine tug on the heart of every artist. Ask any writer if they’d still pursue the craft though no one read another work by them again and the most common reaction would be “I don’t think I’d have a choice”. A painter will always paint, sculptor sculpt and a runner run, whether or not their artistic expression is recognized by anyone else as valuable.

Dost thou? Well then, how would you explain a toddler’s doodling? From an early age these lil-tikes are found wrecking havoc via crayon upon the pages of anything within reach – especially a parent’s treasured book collection. While a father/mother may be proud of their child’s accomplishment (especially if the book happened to be Twilight; a toddler’s doodling can only improve that) hang it on the fridge and give many “oohs” and “ahhs” to support the child’s creative spirit, the child had no comprehension of such affirmation to motivate his creation in the first place. Rather, he picked up a crayon and began to doodle because something within him told him it mattered. It’s not the recognition that brings value to any form of art, but the motivation for the art itself.

To this end, we must accept that rather than being just a creation, art, at it’s purest and most base-level nature, is a submission. When an artist begins to work, they are not creating anything that could not have existed without their doing (i.e. creating something from nothing and therefore holding the eternal power of the Divine), rather they are taking a plunge into the imaginative realm for no reason other than they know it’s a plunge to which they are being called. They don’t know why they’re being called, or (in most cases) what it is even that’s calling them…they just know that they are and within their art they seek to explain something they could never explain otherwise.

Or that.

With such a view of art in mind, we can (finally) take a moment to examine the art of still.

Stillness is a form of art in that it is a submission to the tugging upon our souls to submit to Divine providence. Rather than it being the creative act of doing something, the aspect of artwork most commonly expressed and celebrated, stillness is a form of expressing submission. This is confusing to most people. For instance, if someone had come walking along the trail this morning and found me sitting upon a log, the following conversation would’ve most likely ensued:

 Me: “Good morning, kind sir.”

“Ah, well hello there! Nice day isn’t it?”

“Indeed, lovely day.”

“I say, what are you doing?”

“Being still.”

“I see that, chap. But what are you doing?”

 I’m not sure why I would utilize British diction in this situation, but hopefully you get the point. Stillness is what I am doing; it is the act in which I am participating. And within my stillness, I am submitting to God’s supremacy. My ability to be still is a submission to the very character of God, because I, if for one brief moment, admit with my whole person that His world does not require my contributions in order to function. But this makes about as much sense to our perpetually busy human nature as, say, getting rid of the electoral college. No explanation would be required by my counterpart if I’d said “Oh, I’m painting a picture” or “Scoping out a photograph” or even “So sorry, needed to drop a deuce”. But because of our OMG-if-I-sit-still-for-more-than-one-millisecond-everything-that-matters-in-this-earth-will-fall-apart tendencies, my act of stillness is hardly recognized as anything, let alone an art. Thus, should you need further proof that stillness is an art, take this into consideration: stillness is completely countercultural; it makes little to no sense in our world.

But seriously, you are.

This is because stillness requires that I take a step back and humbly accept my role in the grand scheme of things. It requires the humility of prayer, the effort of silence and the acceptance of grace. And this submission fulfills a necessary dynamic of an artistic endeavor.

“But,” say you, “if stillness is an art, then it requires submission and creation. I get the submission part. What then are you creating?”

This is a good question, and the answer is simple: peace. Just like a painter picks up his brush and approaches the blank canvas, hours later transforming it into a nature scene or family portrait, so do I take something, my existence, and with submission transform it into something it wasn’t before. While stillness is primarily submissive, it does indeed create something as well. This is important because in this sense, Christian stillness is much different from the idea of meditation sought by thos religions of (primarily) Eastern origin, the goal of which is to clear the mind to achieve enlightenment, not through creating but emptying. Christian stillness (or meditation, if you prefer) is not an emptying, but rather a creating.

And, this is important, because not only is creativity essential, it is also the only possible end of stillness; emptiness is not. As I (briefly) mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as an original thought. Creativity is fueled by inspiration, and inspiration has it’s roots in something; humans do not have the power to create something out of nothing, if for no other reason than the fact that we do not have access to pure nothingness.

There is only one being who ever had such access (hint: his name begins with a “G” and ends with an “od”) and the moment He created light from that nothingness…the notion of nothingness vanished for eternity. Thus when an artist receives inspiration, it’s origin will inevitably be traced back to something that was already in existence, a childhood memory, book they read on their morning train ride, conversation with an ex-lover, serene moment in the dawn of an autumn morning… whatever, it will have come from somewhere.

Your family: providing adequate inspiration for angst-filled art since ever.

And whatever it comes from, its origin can eventually be traced to God, because it is God that caused nothingness to vanish and thus made creativity possible to begin with. Because of this, every creative action, every form of art, points to God. Stillness included.

Which is why stillness, which creates peace, can adequately be labeled as an “art”. This is why the goal of meditation and stillness should never be to empty ourselves, but to (as an act of submission) create within ourselves a new peace. Since our God is the God of peace, the act of us taking a moment in our chaotic world to create peace from our own lives and imaginative thought is nothing short of a continued effort towards a beautiful and grand masterpiece.

 Therefore, we must seek to embrace moments when we can participate in the art of stillness. We need more stillness in our relationships, our prayers, our thoughts, our wanderings, our questions and every inch of our creative being. We need to find ourselves at the heart of art, in the submission of creating peace in our lives as an act of submission to the Divine Artist himself. Of all the forms of art I may pursue or admire in my life, this is the utmost.

A man sitting on a log in the middle of the woods is not wasting time, nor is he exhausted, a loner or deranged (usually). Rather, that man is an artist in the act of submission. His solitude, his stillness and his resulting peace all point to their Creator the one from whom all art flows and all art submits. His stillness is a beautiful art indeed.

Kind of like Taylor Swift.