When our children were teenagers, I came home from work to discover my house was moving. My sons had commandeered my stereo and had broken the sound barrier with music that sounded like a herd of angry cats chasing a bagpiper. I smiled as I approached the house, knowing that what goes around comes around. You see, throughout my teenage years I gladly drove inexpensive cars if they had expensive stereo systems. Noise was a big part of my life back then. I put on the headphones at night and fell asleep somewhere between Chicago and the Eagles. Sometimes I miss the good old days. But more than anything, I miss my hearing.
The Hearing Foundation of Canada reports that I am not alone. Hearing loss is the fastest growing chronic condition facing Canadians today, with close to three million adults suffering from hearing problems. Pete Townsend of the rock group The Who has tinnitus from performing before huge crowds and large speaker towers for the past three decades. “I can't even hear what my children are saying,” he said recently.
We not only live in a sped up world, we live in an excessively noisy one. One day I stood in a cafeteria line beside a teenager who had surgically-implanted headphones just above his earrings. I smiled at him and then mouthed a question. Kindly removing the headphones, he cocked his head.
“Are you OK?” I asked. “It sounds like someone's killing chickens in there.” Thankfully he smiled too. “I'm listening to Blink 182,” he said proudly. Then he laughed and shook his head. “Killing chickens,” he said, sliding the headphones back into place and turning up the chickens.
Noise induced hearing loss, as the experts call it, is by no means a new problem. Ancient papyrus from Egypt shows that men working near Nile waterfalls developed it. So did those working in print shops, shipyards, and church nurseries. But in the last 20 years the culture of noise has descended on North America with a vengeance. Movie theatres have pumped up the volume. Bands at wedding receptions are tired of being background music. Boom boxes on city streets and ear-splitting rock and roll performances are the norm. “Every part of our environment has increased its noise,” states Dr. Marin Allen, who studies such things. She cites an increase in urban traffic, heavy equipment, and the use of power tools. “Everything we do seems to be louder,” she says. “If you use a hair dryer next to your ears for a period of years—you know that's something that our grandmothers didn't have. That's part of life now.”
All of us seem to be affected by an addiction to noise. But perhaps we are losing something even more valuable than our hearing. It is our ability to listen. To quietly contemplate. To be still and think deeply.
In Letter 22 of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, wicked Uncle Screwtape boasts, “We will make the whole universe a noise. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end.” And Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline writes, “In contemporary society, our Adversary majors in three things, noise, hurry and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness,’ he will rest satisfied.”
Some of us are fearful of silence. If we stop we may have to think for ourselves. If we listen we may not like what we hear. We find solitude synonymous with loneliness. And so we miss the quiet whisperings of God. Though He can be heard anywhere, He speaks most often in the silence, rarely through our headphones and seldom while we sit in traffic jams honking. As surely as light makes no noise as it travels, God is best heard where noise does not distract and disturb and interrupt. And old Italian proverb says “Where the river is deepest it makes the least noise.” We are deepened in the quiet places.
The Bible has much to say about the merits of quietness: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 NIV). “In quietness and confidence is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15 NLT). “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
Such following cannot take place without listening for directions.
I once asked a teenager who was voted most popular girl in her entire high school what her secret was. She said simply, “I listen.”
No one loves a good movie or a loud celebration more than I, but there are times when we must be still and listen. When we would do well to lift our eyes and enjoy nature, watch a bird feeder rather than a television, and drive with the radio off.
There's a time for everything. A time to pull the plug on the kingdom of noise. And a time to eat supper too. I think that's my wife calling. Or it could be the stereo. Or the wind. Boy, do I miss my hearing.