Modern Distractions Lead to a Fear of Silence

This essay is part of a series called The Big Ideas, in which writers respond to a single question: What do we fear? You can read more by visiting The Big Ideas series page.

Sometime in 1993, as I walked along a street in my hometown, Carndonagh, County Donegal, Ireland, a car pulled up alongside me, triggering sudden dread. The window came down, and I was met by the dark, inquisitory eyes of my father.

“Why aren’t you at Mass?” he asked.

I see myself, fierce and lean in a Slayer T-shirt, bristling with the rage of the nihilist. I longed to escape the claustrophobic small town and the towering shadow of the Catholic Church. For once I was impelled to tell the truth.

“Look,” I said, “I have no faith. I don’t believe in God anymore and can’t go on with the pretense.”

I was met with an imprisoning silence. But what my father said next astonished me.

“OK,” he replied. “Just don’t tell your mother.”

With those six words, my father set me free to enter the kingdom of the seeker, although at first, I did not seek very much. I had an incendiary’s ire to burn it all down — every institution, religious or otherwise, that sought to control the narrative of meaning or to impose orthodoxy upon my life. Now that I had solved the problem of God, I thought, I could adopt a life of distraction and revelry.

But that young atheist soon recognized his error. Where there is human being, there is human spirit. The feeling of aliveness. The staggering complexity of personhood. The fundamental dignity that each person seeks in a cosmos that cannot know them. And where there is human spirit, there is the pursuit of meaning. If you live in a post-faith world, as many of us do, the question of our intrinsic meaning must be confronted. How are we to define our suffering? What might give our lives significance within an unresponsive universe? To begin this conversation, one must truly encounter the self.

When Robinson Crusoe sets foot upon that desert island, he encounters an essential self that lies outside the cultural and political structures of his time, and is concerned primarily with meaning. Crusoe enters into conversation with his God and the cosmos, and in doing so, comes to know his authentic being. In other words, he becomes an individual. Every one of us — religious, agnostic, atheist or just plain unexamined — has that desert island deep within as an intrinsic part of the mind. You must reach that island by yourself and walk its ragged shores by moonlight. Perhaps at dawn you might build a serviceable hut from the driftwood of ideas that appeals to your postmodern magpie mind that can serve as your house of meaning.

But not everyone comes upon that island nor even knows it is there.

The essential self is calling always for our attention, but its voice is stifled by the slam and tumult of modern life. Its voice cannot be heard amid the babel, and it is silenced entirely before the infinite scroll of the smartphone. I have been meditating for one-third of my life, and this essential self seems to me an aspect of mind that is somehow higher, wheeling soundlessly in a private sky. You must stop and look up in order to find it, although in times of crisis it has been known to swoop down and hoist you off your feet with its talons.

For the generations that came of age in a meaning-hungry 20th century, the problem of the authentic being loomed large within culture. Intellectuals and artists grappled with the problem until it grew passé and perhaps too absurd. Then there came a decentering turn, a time when critical theory catalyzed a politicization of the arts. Today, artists are fixated on the political, and the dominant belief is that all our problems can be solved by and within society. Our search for meaning can of course be shaped and influenced by society, but the problem of meaning remains a desert island problem. Societies that seek to wrest control of meaning from the individual invite totalitarianism or theocracy.

Today, life lived on the hamster wheel of distraction has created an absurdity within the grand absurdity of existence. Many people live with partial minds not even conscious of the problem of meaning. We are no longer alienated from the world, but alienated from ourselves. We should beware a culture that has exchanged meaning for information. When conversation with the essential self grows silent, pathology is invited in. We slouch about at a loss for something we cannot quite explain. A malaise sets in that is despair without the knowledge of despair. Some unseen, unaccountable pain must be assuaged and we grow consumed by anger and cast about for blame. The irrational erupts from within and seeks a target in society. The shadow of the irrational is now everywhere about us.

In his poem “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats articulates a metaphysical law about the human condition and warns of what happens to a civilization where the individual loses contact with that essential self of the private sky:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…

That which takes wing inside us must come to perch, but that which takes flight in fog and storm grows lost. Deep beneath the vast economic and political failings of our age there lies a spiritual crisis, a tectonic shift beginning to quake and tear at the bedrock of our ethical societies in the West. The modern age has created a religious problem that can no longer be answered by religion, nor can it be addressed by the current faith in techno-science. We live in an age that fears silence and does not contemplate the true cost of this fear.

Paul Lynch is the author of five novels. His latest, “Prophet Song,” won the 2023 Booker Prize.

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