In the months since I last wrote in my blog, I have spent a considerable amount of time in solitude. I’ve had to. An exacerbation of ME/CFS symptoms including migraine, dizziness, nausea and brain fog have made it essential. For much of January and February, I was rarely far from my bed. I struggled with any form of socialising and spent most of my days entirely alone. When my husband was home in the evenings, our conversation was reduced largely to the bare necessities.
Since then, I have seen a slow improvement, but have also weathered the relentless pain and broken nights that have accompanied the onset of a frozen shoulder. As a result, my blog has remained silent.
Silence. I’ve written about it before: https://ripplesinthewind.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/silence/
In that post, I made the point that silence is not empty. In fact, if we stop to listen to them, the sounds of silence can speak much louder than words because words so often get lost, falling over themselves in a cacophony of human jabber that communicates little and hence, paradoxically, is silent.
My words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
(Paul Simon, ‘The Sounds of Silence’)
We need true silence in order to distinguish one voice from another and hear what it has to say. Yet prolonged silence can be difficult precisely because of this. It compels us to hear voices that perhaps we would prefer not to hear. With only ourselves for company, we become subject to all the fears and distortions that can be dreamed up by the human mind, together with the worst (and best) manifestations of our own human nature.
Back in January, I picked up a book that had been left on my bookshelf a couple of years previously by a friend. I picked it up primarily because I was bored. I hadn’t the energy to write, draw or communicate. So, thinking that on this particular day I might at least be able to read, I picked up the book: Taken on Trust – the story of Terry Waite’s captivity in the Lebanon. It’s not a book I had read before. When he wrote it, I was busy having children. But the more I read, the more I became fascinated by the similarities and differences in our experiences. He spoke of the long days and nights in which time seemed to have no meaning, separated as he was from the world outside. He spoke of his attempts to exercise – walking up and down and round and round until the steps became miles – and of his sense of frustration when he was chained to a wall and could no longer do this. He spoke of living for months without books. No books! And here I was reading his book because it was the best means I had of holding on to my own sanity!
Towards the end of his time in captivity, he became seriously ill with some kind of chest infection and it was then that he says he came closest to being overwhelmed by what he describes as self-pity. Initially, this surprised me. Up to that point, his freedom and personhood had been violated in so many ways that I didn’t expect illness to make so much impact. Yet it did.
Self-pity. I know what he means. I know it only too well. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about that word self-pity. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is ‘overwhelmed with sorrow.’ Is that self-pity, I wonder? He asks his friends to watch with him. Is that self-pity? He prays that he might not have to face the end that he knows is coming. Is that self-pity? Or is it more about a deepening realisation of one’s own vulnerability and hence a very human need for help, support and protection? And if it’s about a human need for help and support, is having that need really such a despicable thing that we must label it as self-pity and strive to hide it?
The sounds of silence.
Voices that can echo so loudly with vulnerability and inadequacy that it becomes hard to distinguish between them. At what point does the cry of genuine human need become the cry of self-pity? Who is able to make that judgement? As a child once put it:
pain is lonleyness because know one noes what I feel
(From ‘In Times of Pain’ by Jane Grayshon)
Brian Keenan, in The Evil Cradling (his own account of life as a hostage in Lebanon), is a good deal more open than Terry about the horrors of being at the mercy of nothing but your own mind. With nothing else to occupy it, the mind can and does torture us with all manner of distorted perceptions. However, because his time in solitary confinement was limited, Brian is also able to speak of the enormous strength and comfort that he gained from the companionship of someone who shared his cell and hence could walk the journey with him.
Having someone with whom to share even a little of the pain makes all the difference. There have been times in the past few months when I have been overwhelmed to the point of tears by the warmth, kindness and respect of folks who have shown me that they care, even if they haven’t always known how to help. Just by their presence, they help hold the shattered fragments of my being together far more effectively than they know.
I wish I could be more profound in my spiritual life. I am still very much a child in my understanding of my faith. I have no deep thoughts, no great insights, no outstanding qualities. I am a very ordinary man chained to a wall and attempting to struggle through another day of boredom and uncertainty.
To me, this says it all. Those of us who face such difficulties are not heroes and would not want to be thought of as such. We are just ordinary people living what has to be lived because it has to be lived. We don’t deserve admiration and we don’t want it. Nor do we want pity. But, at least for me, kindness and respect are like gold in a world where everyone from the psychiatrist and politician to the local quack seem to be clamouring with opinions about what is wrong with me and how I could be or should be living my life.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
(Paul Simon, ‘The Sounds of Silence’)
In such a world, I am profoundly grateful for all those who have walked beside me. I would not be without them. However, I also know that there is a sense in which the journey can only be mine. No-one can walk it for me. That’s why I need the silence. Not just because I am sick or because my brain cannot cope with input, though this may be true as well. But because I need to be able to hear my own voice in order to find my way through. And because, beyond that, in the darkness, whether I hear it or not, there plays the silent music of hope, the gentle rhythm of grace, the fiery heartbeat of God inviting us to dance.
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence…
Disclaimer: I cannot say what was in Paul Simon’s mind when he wrote the song. The above is simply one interpretation of his words.