In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle writes,
When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening. I will never understand the silent dying of the green pie-apple tree if I do not slow down and listen to what the Spirit is telling me, telling me of the death of trees, the death of planets, of people, and what all these deaths mean in the light of love of the Creator who brought them all into being; who brought me into being; and you.
This questioning of the meaning of being, and dying, and being, is behind the telling of stories around the tribal fires at night; behind the drawing of animals on the walls of caves; the singing of melodies of love in spring, and of the death of green in autumn. It is part of the deepest longing of the human psyche, a recurrent ache in the hearts of all of God’s creatures.
Earlier this week, I published an article about my journey from shallowness to depth; and how The Shallows – the constant cascade of distracting tweets, videos, and addictive news feeds – destroyed my capacity to stay connected to the things that mattered most to me.
L’Engle, a mystical writer who had a knack for delving into unsettling realities, uncovers why retreating from the Shallows might be so hard for us: the silence is terrifying. Implicit in her words is terror: terror of death, of the unknown, and the cosmos itself that allows such death. The death of trees, people and planets is a scary thing, and we’d prefer not to dwell on it. We’d rather avoid the silence altogether – the silence where such questions about mortality and the nature of the universe crop up like strange dandelions in the busy garden of our life.
And yet, to ask such questions, to go to such depths, is what makes us human. Art and music and literature – these are all attempts to contemplate the deep mysteries of existence. It is an appetite as real as our drive for food and water. As an artist, I can’t afford to not go deep, I can’t afford to not tap into the deep wells of human nature in silence.
When we avoid the terrifying silence, we deny our humanity: our capacity to ask big questions about big things, and somehow that lack starves us. Our lives become anemic, desperate, lonely. Terror is not always a bad thing, but something to be embraced. If missed, we may live easier, more impoverished lives.
Ultimately, when we start to wade away from The Shallows into a life of depth, we discover something that only experience could teach us: Depth might sometimes be terrifying, but there is more peace there, too. The longer we stay away from silence, the more horrifying and intolerable it seems, while all along it’s the Shallows that sap away our life and peace of mind.
A life without contemplation is a distracted, agitated one, but that can always be reversed. It starts by disconnecting from the noisy cascade and then dipping your toes into the quiet waters of Depth. Little by little, wade out into the waters of silence, focus, and contemplation. There is a world of monsters and wonders there – all of which make life exciting, beautiful, and worth living. Fortunately, our history is full of artists, story-tellers, and thinkers who have plunged into the depths before you, and who have charted the way.