Religious freedom permits ears, hearts to hear silence

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 24, 2007

There is a hearing impairment of far greater consequence than merely the physical failure of our ears.

Two weeks ago this column made reference to the silence of a snowflake falling. That wintertime sound continues to draw passionate responses, and in a certain sense can help us appreciate more fully the beauty of religious freedom. Take this note, for example, from one of our British Columbia coffee companions who is a lover of the outdoors:

I’VE JUST GOT to jump in here. I have experienced that absolute silence a few times in my life, most notably in the alpine meadows of Manning Provincial Park, and on a small one-person ledge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

There is no water dripping, not the slightest stir of the wind, no animal noises, no hum from the machines that dominate our lives. Nothing. Try as you might, you can hear nothing. Then you become aware of your breathing and your heartbeat. In our world this is a very rare thing.

But then the magic happens. Silence itself becomes, how to say it, a “sound.” Sound is not negated in absolute silence, but fulfilled, the inner ear is opened – I don't know, language breaks down.

But to hear it is life-changing and life-giving. At one point I wrote: "Absolute silence, the voice of God."

—Darryl Klassen, Langley, B.C.

THEN IN LAST week’s column, you may remember, Calgary coffee companion Jeff Perkins lamented, “Those of us with hearing impairment will never again be able to ‘hear’ silence. The snowflakes may fall silently, but it is against a background of tinnitus hisses.”

To this a coffee companion from near Buffalo, New York, responded:

I CAN UNDERSTAND Jeff's feelings about not “hearing” the silence. I haven't had a moment of silence in over 50 years. I've forgotten what it is like. I knew once. If we let it, that tinnitus would drive us crazy. It never ends. Apparently the human brain cannot stand absolute silence very long. If there's no audio input, it generates its own noise.

At night in bed I have trouble separating outside noise from "inside" noise. They both sound alike in the dark of the bedroom. More fun. My hearing loss is now around 96 per cent and getting progressively worse. I have trouble understanding what people are saying to me even with my hearing aid in place. Be glad you can hear.

—Don Cornell, Amherst, New York

I KNOW WHAT Jeff and Don mean. For several years, now, tinnitus has robbed me, also, of any hope of “hearing silence,” though my hearing is only minimally impaired compared to Don’s.

But there is a hearing impairment of far greater consequence, I believe, than merely the physical failure of our ears. True, there are times when we cannot hear. But there are other times when we will not hear.

Let me illustrate this with an event that took place in Cochrane the other night.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Freedom of Religion, 38 of us gathered to hear each other’s thoughts on religious freedom. There were Jews, Christians, Muslims, Bahai’is, people of earth-based spirituality, and others. Some have lived all their lives in the religious freedom we’ve come to take for granted in the West. Others were raised under totalitarian regimes hostile to religious diversity and have experienced – or witnessed – governmental and sectarian interference, sanctions, persecutions and bloodshed against those whose only “crime” has been their desire to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience.

As the discussion progressed, it became clear to me that at the heart of such discrimination lies a problem of hearing – an unwillingness to hear any story other than the officially sanctioned story; a willful deafness toward heartfelt stories other than one’s own.

And yet, within our small gathering that evening, we embraced an alternative to such deafness: we listened respectfully to stories of the deeply-held convictions of others in the group, and in consequence we learned more about ourselves and our own faith-based values.

Far from freedom of religion being a threat, it was clear that religious freedom as called for in the UN declaration can allow each of us in our own way, without fear, to open our inner ear and experience that “absolute silence” where, as Darryl so eloquently put it, we just may hear “the voice of God.”

© 2007 Warren Harbeck

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