The Sound of Silence
How to find inspiration in the age of information
by Michael Smith
First published 2004 by Caux Books, Fifth printing 2010
Rue de Panorama, Case Postale 36, 1824 Caux, Switzerland,
Copyright © Michael Smith 2004, Designed by Hayden Russell,
Cover photo by Chloe Smith, Cartoons by Einar Engebretsen
The age of Information has transformed the world, shrinking time and distance.
Communication has become virtually instant. The media bring the traumas and hopes of the world into our homes as they happen. We have access to almost unlimited information at the touch of our keyboards. We are more aware of the great social, moral and ethical issues the world faces than any previous generation, developing in us a strong social conscience.
Are we any wiser? We still face gross injustices between the rich and poor worlds, the scourge of deadly diseases, unprecedented environmental and family breakdown, climate change, racial and religious conflict, terrorism and war. We all too easily feel ineffective towards the issues the world faces and—unless we have access to the levers of economic and political power—unable to do anything about them.
Yet we are more empowered to make a difference—to change the world—than in any previous age. We campaign and lobby, protest and demonstrate, support charities and give our time and energy to worthwhile causes. We boycott the products of sweated labour and buy fair trade produce. And we do our bit to save the environment.
All these are worthwhile. But they may not give us the great themes—the direction—for our lives. For that we need to stand back and gain perspective; to reflect on the direction our lives are taking. How do we find a sense of purpose? How do we live in an age of information—and often information overload? Online social media increase our connectivity with each other but they rarely increase our connection with our inner selves. In order to do that we may need to turn away from the addictiveness of cellphones and tablets; to switch them off and set time aside, away from their attraction. As the veteran French journalist Bernard Margueritte comments, ‘The illness of our age is not lack of information but lack of meaning.’ In the knowledge economy, we need a special kind of knowledge to live in harmony with each other and the whole of creation. In the welter of the world’s information we need skills of discernment.
HOW TO GAIN THESE SKILLS?
How to gain a sense of priorities and a meaningful life? How do busy people find unhurried time for each other and largesse of leisure in the hurly-burly of life? And how can the unemployed or under-employed find motivation and a sense of being needed?
We need life skills just as much as technical skills. All the more so at a time when the threat of terrorism and reprisal can paralyze us with fear—and when the passions that lie deep in the heart of a person can be a matter of life or death.
Technical skills allow us to make use of information nd technology. But they cannot tell us what is harmful and what is healthy.
One of the most important skills is to know how to access the source of spiritual insight and initiative which can prompt the human mind and heart. This may be more vital than accessing information from the Internet.
What, you may ask, do you mean by ‘spiritual’? It is essentially that which prompts and informs the human spirit—intangible rather than material. The spiritual relates to our sense of satisfaction, wellbeing, and ultimate happiness in life. For the millions around the world who adhere to a religious faith, it also relates to the soul—the ‘seat of human personality, intellect, will and emotions’, as one dictionary defines it.
It seems that our brains are hard-wired for spiritual experience. A report, Hardwired to Connect, by Dartmouth Medical School, New Hampshire, suggests that the human brain is ‘biologically hardwired for enduring attachments to other people and for moral and spiritual meaning’. There are areas of the frontal cortex which produce transcendent feelings. Some people tap into this through drugs, others through music. Far safer than drugs, though, and far more common is prayer and quiet meditation. Many believe that this enables us to interface intuitively with a source of information or ‘guidance’ that is beyond mere human reasoning or intellect.
In May 1956, Frank Buchman, the American founder of the campaigning spiritual movement Moral Re-Armament, now Initiatives of Change, spoke of ‘the electronics of the spirit’ which ‘circles the globe instantly’. A thought could slip into a person’s mind ‘at any time of day or night’ which could be ‘the thought of the Author of mind’.
In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee developed the software which made the world-wide web of information on the Internet possible. He called it Enquire, after an old Victorian encyclopaedia he remembered from his childhood called Enquire within upon everything. His invention, wrote Time magazine in 1999, has ensured ‘that all of us can continue, well into the next century, to enquire within upon anything’.
The source of spiritual information also encourages us to enquire within upon anything. It acts like a wireless technology, an information superhighway of the spirit—a world-wide web of ethical and spiritual values—to which we can all connect, and from which we can download wherever we are located on the planet. It is truly global. But it is also within us, in the silence of the human heart.
Such spiritual information gives us a sense of calm and reassurance, courage and inspiration, perspective and purpose in life. It is much more than just conscience—though it may well reawaken a dormant conscience, nudging us perhaps towards apologies for past wrongs, restoring for deceptions or choosing to let go of resentment or hatred.
Internet entrepreneur Béla Hatvany likens it to the central nervous system which allows the body of human-kind to function. This experience, of finding spiritual information, is common to people of many faith traditions and can be equally real to nonbelievers and agnostics.
In this spiritual sphere there is no digital divide between those who have access to information and those who don’t. Spiritual information is available to everyone, anywhere, regardless of wealth or background, creed or status, or location.
Tim Berners-Lee’s dream for the world-wide web, described in his book Weaving the Web, was that it would become ‘a much more powerful means for collaboration between people. I have always imagined the information space as something to which everyone has immediate and intuitive access, and not just to browse, but to create.’ Likewise, spiritual information inspires us to collaboration and creative action.