Christmas is the most ironic of holidays. It is ostensibly a day of rest and spiritual nourishment where we talk about “peace on earth” and “goodwill to men.” But my experience is that the day itself, and the weeks preceding it, can be noisy and cacophonous and desperate. I’ve had Christmases where I’ve felt as if those Salvation Army bells are ringing right inside my head, blunting my appreciation of the festivities.
And for now I’d like to pull back for a little while, pull back from all the sounds and traffic in public places and all the preoccupations and preparations at home. I’d like to return to things I learned about quiet when I was a kid.
One of my most vivid memories of childhood – I must have been pretty young – is laying on my back under the Christmas tree, looking up at the familiar ornaments and the steady, glowing lights. I remember that the room was dark and safe, and that there was nobody else around except the cat, sleeping. It was a perfect haven.
And it was quiet. It was not an ordinary quiet. It was an enclosed quiet, very, very still, a quiet that was mysterious and complete and that must have been around since the beginning of time. It felt like peace at its most distilled, its most concentrated.
And I was marked for life.
Then there was a more common kind of quiet I knew as a child, one that accompanied me on my solitary roamings in the fields near our house. For hours I might not hear anything except the sounds of my steps in the brush, or the sounds of the occasional train in the distance, its wheels clacking on the trestles as it passed through town. Against that neutral backdrop, I could be visited by all kinds of observations and hunches, and I could ask my own questions and find my own answers. Nothing interfered. The space was open.
I would now describe this as the quiet of intuition and discernment, the quiet that prompts the findings of new connections and the reassessments of old ones. It is the quiet that allows questions like “What makes sense to me?” or “What do I really want?” When people refer to the voices of their muses, it’s this kind of quiet that lets those voices be heard. We don’t need large tracts of solitude like I had when I was young, but nothing will happen if we’re too busy.
I know now that I was lucky to go into adulthood with these kinds of experiences of quiet under my belt. Among other things they’ve provided a baseline by which to measure the considerable noise in my head. Some of that noise is prompted by things in the environment, like news on the TV or music on the car radio. But most noise is self-generated: preoccupations and schemings, but more often just a general buzz. Noise is natural, and it’s the human condition, but where does it get us? I wonder, maybe, since all our minutes on this good green earth are borrowed, we might just slightly prefer quality of life over what we usually give ourselves.
And here’s a disturbing thought: How are we supposed to find peace on earth if we can’t even find it inside our heads? How do we change the world for the better if we don’t know who we are and what the truth is? It takes both emotional generosity and skill to find these things. And it takes subtle discernment to know when to go forward into the environment, and when to pull back into ourselves. It’s not always clear, but sometimes it is clear.
Especially now I would like to pull back, maybe just for an hour or two, where there are no responsibilities, no distractions, no voices, no sounds.
It’s the closest I can get to something that’s not borrowed.