…and the art of listening.
by Dave Skipper
Noise as interruption
Noise is all around us. You hear it, but do you listen to it? If you do listen to it, how does it make you feel? Quite possible irritated, at least sometimes, as that is how we often define noise. But is there also noise you like? Something that technically is noise, but doesn’t encroach your space negatively?
What about so-called noise music, or noise put to deliberate use in some kind of performative or artistic context? How do you listen to noise music (or how would you begin to try listening to noise music if it’s new to you or if it’s really not your cup of tea)?
As usual in this blog I don’t spend a lot of time making a sharp distinction between noise, noisy sounds, and noise music. However, I want to suggest that perhaps noise of any kind is a form of disruption, of intrusion, of interruption.
Noise declares a discontinuity in our soundscape. Noise seeks to arrest our attention. Noise summons us to listen – if we can or if we dare. Noise interrupts.
Intriguingly, silence is as much a form of interruption as noise. Whereas noise interrupts the quiet, the familiar, the expected, silence interrupts the hubbub, the noise, the life that goes on.
Interruption is a part of life. Not just the interruption of audio noise, but anything (and often, more to the point, anyone) that stops us in our flow, in our tracks, in our comfort zone. Without interruption there would be no change, no surprises, no crises, no adventures, no risks, no dynamics, no life.
Some interruptions may be wanted and even sought for, but by their very nature interruptions usually arrive unanticipated and unannounced. And more often than not, I would guess that interruptions are typically unwanted.
The primacy of listening
Listening is our primary (as in initial, not always or necessarily the most important) task in life. The first and most active sense in the womb is probably hearing, closely followed by touch/feeling (anyway these two senses are closely connected as hearing is all to do with feeling vibrations).
God’s first act in history was to speak history into existence. Adam’s first experience of God was to receive his breath of life and to hear God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. God communicates to mankind through his Word: the written word of the Bible and the Living Word who is Jesus Christ. Jesus summoned his disciples through the words of his voice, “Come, follow me”, thereby setting in motion the course of Christian history.
Everything rests on whether we listen to God’s voice, and how we listen to and respond to his voice. I believe that there can be no timeless ethics, no ultimate purpose, no meaningful direction, no consistent discernment, and no lasting value in this world and in our lives without God’s voice: his voice that creates, his voice that gives breath, his voice that breathed scripture, his voice that declares his laws, and climactically his voice manifest in the Son of God – Jesus Christ the Living Word of God.
Listening is ethical
What makes a good listener? And what makes a good listener of/to noise? Attentiveness, open-mindedness, curiosity – these attributes must surely be there.
I want to suggest that a good listener is someone who – before anything else – is open to interruption, and open to being interrupted. Therefore a good listener doesn’t react impulsively against noise. A good listener allows time and space for noise to exist, to be sensed, to be evaluated.
How we decide what to listen to or not listen to, and how we listen, are ethical decisions and actions. Listening is not a neutral, purely subjective activity. I would say that nothing highlights the ethical nature of listening more than our attitude and response to being interrupted, especially when we are interrupted by other people.
Putting people and noise and interruption together then creates the ultimate test: how do I respond to being interrupted by noisy people? My response to unwanted noise is a notable litmus test for the state of my heart.
Listening to God
I have been reflecting on how I have defaulted to a false belief for years. I have come to realise that it is a dangerous misnomer to think that in order to clearly hear God’s voice (and by this I primarily mean my mind and my heart paying heed to and being changed by the content of the Bible as God’s Word, as effected by the Holy Spirit), that I first need to still my mind and heart. In other words, I have thought that I need to calm any noise in my own mind and heart (stress, distraction, to-do lists, unresolved responsibilities, etc), as well as blocking out any external noise. But in reality this is a practical doctrine of salvation by works, which the Bible utterly rejects.
Instead I need to hear God’s voice through the noise of my mind and soul, in spite of my inner noise, in fact because of my inner noise. It is into and within the chaos and noise of this world that Jesus came to be born and to die, and it is into the chaos and noise that he still speaks by his Word and Spirit. What I need is not quiet, let alone silence, but I need the noise of interruption. I need the interruption of God’s voice to awaken me, shake me, revive me, transform me. I need to ask God to interrupt me with his voice. I don’t need to beg, I just need to ask, for he is willing and able to speak and to save.
Listening to God’s voice is more than hearing, more than paying attention, more than understanding, more than pondering, more than agreeing. Listening to God is faith: believing his words, imbibing then into every fibre of my being, and acting on them in complete and willing obedience. To which I can only say – since I am vanishingly far off course from that ideal place – “I believe, help my unbelief!”
I can neither escape nor transcend nor deny the turbulence of life and the turbulence within myself. I can never effectively deal with it by endeavouring to remove the noise, silence the noise, or drown out the noise either by silence or by other and better noise.
The beauty of interruptibility
The most interruptible people are the most attractive. When we feel able to interrupt someone without risking their irritation or offence, then we have found someone worthy of esteem. God is in this way completely interruptible. Once we come to him on his terms (i.e. through Jesus and in humble submission), then our noise is no noise to him at all. He listens perfectly to the cries of broken hearts.
I sometimes hold back from approaching God in prayer because I don’t want to be unwanted noise in his ears. But this is again twisted. It’s the very act and fact of approaching him in my noisiness which he desires and requires, because my noise can only be resolved by him.
Reasons to interrupt
As I pondered these things I realised that some additional balancing points are in order. Firstly, there are forms of interruption that are good and vital, interruptions that stop the flow of destructive noise:
- Silencing injustice.
- Breaking the silence of the oppressed.
- Challenging the status quo.
- A wake-up call.
- A call to action.
Secondly, I am not suggesting that we should stop and take in every kind of interruption that comes our way. We also need boundaries and filters. There are plenty of interruptions that we should ignore or shoot down or prevent.
So, here is my general advice to myself:
- Accept that interruption can be good
- Have ears that are open to interruption
- Have a heart that even desires and seeks interruption!
- Recognise the role interruption has in revealing my heart and prompting me to love others
- Above all, pray for God to interrupt my noise
Listen to the noise. Don’t just hear it, don’t always block it out. Don’t rage against it thoughtlessly. Listen to the noise: it may still be worth rejecting in the end, but you may find the detour beneficial along the way.