Thursday, July 09, 2009
The True Sound of Silence
A poster on a Quaker web board posited a question to readers. She had been driving home late one night where she encountered a rather pathetic looking homeless man begging for food on the side of the road. Out of fear for her safety, especially since it was dark and she was by herself, she kept driving and did not make any attempt to assist the man. Later, however, the thoughts which had at first been consumed and preoccupied with self-preservation turned to guilt. Perhaps she should have stopped to help. Perhaps her fears were utterly groundless. The incident made such an impression her that it caused her to question whether in future she ought to lend a hand to someone clearly in need, even if her first impulse was that of her own safety.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most oft-cited examples of Jesus' teachings and has far superseded its original religious context by its frequent reference in secular society.
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead with no clothes. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, and he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, he too passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and looked after him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
With this parable in mind, I formed my own response. I said,
Martin Luther had this same dilemma. He would pray for hours to be perfect, then moments upon leaving he would have a sinful thought. Upon having this sinful thought he would become so instantly frustrated it that he would return to the church to pray, in hopes that this time his prayers would take.
I'm not sure any of us can achieve spiritual perfection, any more than Luther himself could. But what you are doing here is punishing yourself for no good reason. I could provide you many times in my life instances where being overly cautious and overly guarded probably was not in my own best interest as well as very much in my own best interest. But I think the important thing to pull from this situation is being able to forgive yourself for being imperfect. We all sin. We all have sinful thoughts and at times these sinful thoughts manifest themselves in inaction where action might be better served.
I used to get frustrated at people who didn't do enough. If you swim in activist circles long enough, that's the premise at the core of activism---people aren't doing enough, they should be doing more, and it's my job to inform them of why. But as I've gotten older, I've realized that many people do what they can and that furthermore they do more than some are willing give them credit. Those are the two tensions upon which your post is balanced. I'm not going to propose for you which direction to head, but I will encourage you to find a happy medium in between. I think you'll be much happier with yourself that way.
The idea of the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity was predicated on the belief that if we quiet our minds and direct our energies away from selfish thoughts, then the Inward Light of God will remain alone and then the sought for path will open. Hence, the intent of Quaker unprogrammed worship, which while held in silence, is designed not to be full of empty, meaningless nothingness. It is not silence for silence's sake. What it is, however, is a chance to focus on what truly matters. If I had thought to mention this concept, I would have included it in my original reply to the posting.
As I conclude, my mind can't help but flash to that old Simon and Garfunkle song, itself predicated on the topic of silence.
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
Fools said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you.
But my words like silent raindrops fell,
In the wells of silence