At my Quaker Meeting,
occasionally someone will say, “Could we have some silence please?” especially during a business meeting, which we call Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business. Someone may request silence when the discussion becomes too contentious, and we are not progressing towards resolution. We wait and listen.
What are we listening for? As corny and old-fashioned as it may sound, we are waiting for guidance from god. I have been attending the Quaker Meeting for many years now and have felt increasing awe and reverence for this process by which Quakers conduct business. No shouting. No interrupting. Even the most timid, the most outlying or awkward person may be given time to gather her thoughts, to breathe and to speak, perhaps falteringly, even if she has to pause before continuing. People wait. It is quite amazing. I had never seen anything like it.
Quakers do not vote on issues but discuss, sometimes a lot, and tiringly. Members direct comments to the clerk. At its best, there is time for each person who wants to speak to be heard during the meeting. Instead of voting, we try to discern the “sense of the Meeting” before acting. We are trying to discern god’s will. And even one person can change the movement of the group as he or she feels led to speak. One voice can be the one to heed even if the whole group is going another way – because we believe that all have direct access to god’s guidance, no one person more than another. If the group has not gathered a sense of unity, then the meeting may decide to postpone action. We wait and listen more -- and try again at another meeting.
In this contentious time of lockdowns, isolations, staggering losses of livelihoods and social supports, then violence, snarling faces, flying opinions and accusations, burning buildings, crashing glass, and dizzying confusion of language and numbers and messages changing every day, I have longed to hear someone say those words: “Could we have some silence please?”
Flashing Internet images and slogans on social media and other web sites make me queasy. Anyone can create in seconds a poster with short texts or an image with a caption, and can immediately broadcast it to thousands, even millions. These patched-together messages blink and flash and multiply. I don’t use Twitter, don’t really understand it, but it sounds to me like something a 13-year old boy made up. Yet, we see public figures use haphazard phrases -- tweets (which sounds silly) that instantly become headlines in national newspapers. This cannot be good for our clear thinking or our culture.
Many at protests and riots hold up their devices, filming, and those films and images fill screens and minds. The Internet has changed our brains, as Nicholas Carr describes in his book, The Shallows. He describes how our attention spans have been shattered by clicking through short texts and flashing images as we are increasingly challenged to sustain even the concentration required to sit and read a whole book, for instance. Carr summarizes the findings of early computer scientist Joseph Weizenbuam, who notes the danger as we become more intimately involved with our computers and “experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens -- is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines”. Weizenbaum says that to avoid that fate we must “have the self-awareness and courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits.
Lately, I find myself longing for a Ticonderoga number two pencil, soft lead, rustling steadily over nubby white paper. I am reminded of one of my poetry teachers describing how long it can take to craft a good poem or to compose a whole poetry manuscript. “You know what it’s like,” he said. “It’s like carving a chair.” I remember how long it takes to learn to play the violin, to learn to draw. These slower, more methodical activities strengthen our brains for concentration; they build pathways for creativity, for problem-solving, ultimately for more careful thinking.
“It’s the responsibility of the alternative media to hit the pause button, to take a breath and not be swept away along with the emotional current,” writes an editor of Off-Guardian magazine, a site developed by writers and thinkers who had been banned from making comments on the Open Comments section of the mainstream U.K paper, The Guardian. We are in treacherous times when independent thinkers and writers, who question dominant narratives, may be banned from speaking or writing – or worse, lose friends or family members or jobs. This development is deeply sad and worrisome.
Could we have some silence please?