When the Whale Fails

We are, it must be said, a particularly noisy people in the present age. The cries of “Me! Me! Me!” raised by Western society over the last forty years are practically deafening. There is far too much noise, virtual and otherwise, which we generate with our phone calls, texting, emailing, etc., not to mention our incessant entertainment devices spewing sound waves at us all day long.  As a result, when we are stopped in our tracks and we cannot have all the noise we are accustomed to, it may make us a bit uncomfortable.

Those of my readers who are habitual users of Twitter know that the site went down last night for quite a long period of time. Many of my acquaintance migrated, at least temporarily, to Google Plus or Facebook in order to continue chattering away, while waiting for the infamous “Fail Whale” to re-submerge. I did speculate whether Google had orchestrated a site crash of Twitter just to test and see how usage of Google Plus might increase during that period, but admittedly this is a spurious idea. [N.B.:  Per “Metropolitan” character Nick Smith, should I inexplicably disappear or be found dead under mysterious circumstances, please insist on a full investigation.]

Being in a foul mood for various unimportant reasons, with the crash of Twitter on top of everything else I realized that it was providential for me to be prevented from tweeting. In that particular frame of mind, such communication would probably have led to my arguing with people about trifles. And thinking about the concept of Providence, I decided to read a bit from the classic “Abandonment to Divine Providence” by Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J. (1675-1751).

If you are not already familiar with Caussade’s book, gentle reader, you certainly ought to be. It helped many Catholics during the French Revolution to make it through the trying times in which they found themselves, and provided comfort and direction to those targeted for punishment and execution. Blogger extraordinaire Father Dwight Longenecker provides a good overview of Father Caussade’s work, including the context in which it was written and its being a precursor to some of the ideas explored by C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity”, and also why it should not be mistaken by those espousing hippy-dippy, New Age nonsense as anything but orthodox.

A thought of Caussade’s that particularly struck me was his consideration of two ways to exercise fidelity to the Will of God. He writes:

The active practice of fidelity consists in accomplishing the duties which devolve upon us whether imposed by the general laws of God and of the Church, or by the particular state that we may have embraced. Its passive exercise consists in the loving acceptance of all that God sends us at each moment.

Abandonment to Divine Providence
Chapter III

You can see why the members of the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie found this advice helpful, as they sat in prisons awaiting their fates.  Caussade points out that reading itself may be just another distraction, a source of noise to keep us from doing what we ought, unless we are careful. When life prevents us from making the amount of noise to which we have become accustomed, considerations about who we are and where we are going manage to finally break through into our consciousness, and it is in these moments which Caussade felt that the opportunity to accept our duties in this life, making those alterations that are necessary, were finally possible.

Of course, one does not need to be in prison in order to find time to be quiet and reflect. Certainly the massive Twitter failure last evening provided that opportunity for those who chose to take advantage of it, and no impending trip to the guillotine was needed. However for those of us on the East Coast, there may be an impending opportunity to experience a kind of enforced silence, which we may want to consider taking advantage of.

The horrible heat that has plagued the American breadbasket for the past several days is making its way eastward, and temperatures here in Washington for example may top 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.33 Centigrade) on Friday. With everyone running their air conditioners at the same time, and staying indoors to watch television, use their computers, do laundry, etc., there is a decent chance that things will come to a halt in a brown-out. This will leave us in an unpleasant, sauna-like quiet.

If that happens, what will we do with ourselves? From a practical standpoint there will be various ways to try to keep cool of course, and among the best ways will be to not move about very much, for perspiration can lead quickly to dehydration. Without all the noise buzzing about in our brains, will we simply find other things to start buzzing around, or will accept the imposed time of inaction and quiet as an opportunity for reflection, on both our day-to-day life, and what we are doing with the paths we have chosen to follow?

Technology can be a wonderful thing; without it, gentle reader, you would not be considering these words right now. Yet turning off the technology for a bit, voluntarily, and without having to wait for Twitter to crash or a brown-out to hit your town, would seem to be a virtuous act.  The fail whale may ironically prove to be one of the best things that happen to you, but there is no need to wait for that to happen.

It is a difficult act to undertake, to be sure, in our technology-obsessed time – the deliberate removal of the self from the din of modern life. Apart from when we go to sleep, it is not practical, to those of us living outside of monasteries and the like, for more than a few minutes or hours. Yet in removing all the noise from our lives for some conscious period of reflective silence, we may find greater wisdom than in all the noise with which we surround ourselves.

“Man Reading” by John Singer Sargent (c. 1890)
Reading Public Museum, Reading, PA

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2 thoughts on “When the Whale Fails

  1. I recently discovered a book by Max Picard; The World of Silence. He wrote it in 1948. Originally Jewish he converted to Catholicism.

    This work is invaluable in inoculating us against the fear of silence, in seeing silence as a natural state, in preparing us for a life of silence if we choose, the beginning of a mysticism of silence and solitude, and a death which is, after all, silence.

    Picard’s compelling and even beautiful passages in favorite chapters such as “Nature and Silence,” “Poetry and Silence,” “The Plastic Arts and Silence,” and “Illness, Death and Silence” show us that Picard has a solid instinct. Here are three samples.

    Chinese pictures are like figures in a moonlit mist over the world of silence, woven from moon threads over the silence.
    The seasons move in silence through the changing year. Spring does not come from winter; it comes from the silence from which winter came.

    In the fables of the Golden Age we are told that men understood the language of all animals, trees, flowers, and grasses. That is a reminder of the fact that in the first language that had just come from the fullness of silence, there was still the all-containing fullness.

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  2. Here is a further quotation from Max Picard.

    “Where silence is, man is observed by silence. Silence looks at man more than man looks at silence.” (p. 17)

    “Not until one man speaks to another, does he learn that speech no longer belongs to silence but to man. He learns it through the Thou of the other person, for through the Thou the word first belongs to man and no longer to silence. When two people are conversing with one another, however, a third is always present: Silence is listening. That is what gives breadth to a conversation: when the words are not moving merely within the narrow space occupied by the two speakers, but come from afar, from the place where silence is listening. That gives the words a new fullness. But not only that: the words are spoken as it were from the silence, from that third person, and the listener receives more than the speaker alone is able to give. Silence is the third speaker in such a conversation. At the end of the Platonic dialogues it is always as though silence itself were speaking. The persons who were speaking seem to have become listeners to silence.” (p. 25)

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