Someone reading a previous post of mine on Benjamin P Hardy’s Why Willpower Doesn’t Work made an interesting comment about noise:
One more publication for the pile of noise already 1,000,000+ loud.
Whilst I don’t agree that Hardy’s book is ‘noise’, the commentator does point to a real problem. The Internet at large, and any platform like Medium or any given blog, is full of voices of every persuasion and volume. Moreover, the comment went on to say there is little or no chance of a book like Hardy’s changing people:
…no matter what environment you are in, you are still a human animal. … If all the powerful writings from the last 5,000 years haven’t been able to alter the manners in which we behave, Hardy’s … hardly going to move the needle.
But whilst this gives us pause as we try to find our way through the noise, it doesn’t have to prevent us finding the wise voices. Even if some of them are whispering while others hale, the news doesn’t have to be bad. And nor does our being ‘human animals’ have to get in the way of moral progress and influence.
So how do we make our way through the noise and find inspiration?
The stimulation of noise
Noise isn’t always a bad thing. I’m someone who loves silence. Whilst lots of writers I know play particular music to work to or to get them into flow, it’s silence every time for me. If I want to completely recharge, I’ll take myself off to somewhere quiet and can enjoy a week with not a word.
But it’s also true that we are noisy animals. We use noise for all sorts of purposes. From the market place to selling political wares; from philosophers holding forth in cafes to theatre, noise communicates. We’re not the only noisy animals. Gibbons, for example, use the same complex range of vocal techniques as soprano singers. It allows them to put more power behind higher notes than lower ones. If you want to fill an auditorium with a message or a song, you have to make some noise.
I love opera and theatre. Political rallies not so much. I love a great deal of art and independent film. Block busters usually bore me and I haven’t had a TV for well over a decade. We are noisy animals. We fill the world with it. And some of that noise is drivel and some is full of hate. But some of it is stimulating, thought-provoking and motivating.
It’s not enough to write something off because it’s part of the noise. Which of us isn’t part of it? Instead we have to use some discernment. Not everything we read will resonate with us, but we search for the voices that feel like our tribe. And we look for the voices that challenge us, even if at some point we have to part ways.
The problem isn’t that there is too much noise. The problem is that we need to get better at tuning out what doesn’t serve us and listen to what promotes positive change, nurture or challenge. Stimulation is fine, as long as we have our own filters in place.
Finding the harmony
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash
Some of what we read will not endure. It’s chaff that will blow away in the next gust of wind. Other offerings, though, will nourish us. The trick with noise is to find the harmony.
I love the theory of adjacent possibility. This is the idea that innovation often occurs when we push disparate ideas to their cutting edge and then combine them. Steven Johnson has taken what began as in idea in evolutionary biology and applied it to other areas:
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.
Commenting on the adjacent possible, Eddie Smith says:
I brush the adjacent possible each time I read or write something new. For me, it opens new doors and causes me to see things a little differently than before.
We can’t read everything. We always need to be making choices. But amongst all the noise are ideas that can come together to make new ideas. I recently read a superb book on at the same time as I was reading a book on Jungian psychology and myth-making. I was also dipping into another, by Ursula Le Guin, on writing, particularly an essay on rhythm in speech and listening.
My head was full of ideas, but it wasn’t a cacophony of noise, rather a harmony as I began to consider ways in which story shapes us.
The serendipity of the tune
If we are writers adding to the noise, it’s worth taking a step back and disengaging from the product. Harvard Psychologist, Robert Kegan notes that transformation comes when we detach from the need for specific outcomes.
Similarly, writer, Tina Welling, stresses that what matters is the process of writing. We invest our time and energy in our ideas, share them in good faith and then it’s up to others to make of them what they will. Some will resonate with us, others will find nothing of interest.
Our ideas have to make their own way through the noise and often we will have no idea what impact they might have. I recently read the story of three girls who heard the story of Irena Sendler at school. Sendler was a nurse who smuggled around 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto, saving their lives at huge personal risk.
The girls researching her story at a school in Kansas began a huge project. Their resulting performance piece has toured America and Europe and they had a huge impact on making Sendler’s story known. They’ve also brought in funding for educational and other projects and involved many more young people in international exchanges. Who knows where a story might lead?
The small voice
Photo by Uljana Maljutina on Unsplash
Noise and stimulation, preferably harmonious, has it’s place, but we also need to unhook and unwind as often as possible. If we don’t, we risk drowning in the noise.
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence.
Discernment is a vital skill in so many areas of life and we need to decide not only what we listen to and read, but how much and how to take breaks.
Discernment doesn’t only enable us to screen out the roaring that lies on the other side of silence. It also helps us to find the quieter voices. Sometimes I stumble on a post that I find illuminating and cogent and marvel that it has so few fans. How can this erudite, insightful piece of writing have only 26 readers or even only 3?
Still, I do find these posts. They are there, waiting with quiet grace.
There’s a dramatic story in the Book of Kings of a prophet, Elijah, running for his life at a time when the world seems to be turning upside down. He hides in a cave, trying to hear the voice of his God. (It might, for others, be an inner voice of intuition).
God passes by and a strong wind tears into the mountain, shattering rocks:
but the Lord was not in the wind.
Afterwards there is an earthquake:
but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
And then a fire:
but the Lord was not in the fire.
Finally there is ‘a still small voice’.
And Elijah hides his face as he goes to the entrance of the cave, knowing this is the voice.
Listening to many voices, especially in harmony, motivates and stimulates us. But we also have to know when to listen to the one quiet voice that is saying something different.
And we have to know when not to listen at all, when to completely unhook and take time in solitude and silence. In the Biblical story, the still small voice asked:
What are you doing here, Elijah?
Sometimes we need a small voice inside to ask us that question. To prompt us to retreat, for a small time or for a longer time, so that we can come back to the noise equipped with discernment, able to hear the harmonies.
Call to become your story
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Maureen O'Connor says
As I sit in a snowy Sunday in Minnesota, USA, I am warmed by your wisdom. Thank you for reinforcing my love of silence, the idea that my noise may not be your noise, my noise may be beautiful, my silence may be beautiful. I look forward to more of your clear insights.
Perhaps ‘the challenge with noise is not so much to kill it, as to draw its teeth’
That’s a reworking of an old philosophy quote on relativism but I think it’s as relevant in this context.
I’m with you on silence – and need tidiness too – but it’s not for all; I’m forever astonished at the images Francis Bacon’s squalid studio, and yet he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Bonnie Thurston says
An insightful and moving reflection. One of yout best.
And I discover you,too are a lover of the opeta.
Nick Jones says
Thank you small voice