Just Sit and Listen
“Son, whatever you're doing, be all there.”
I can't recall how many times my Mother said this when I was growing up, but I know that seventy times seven wouldn't cover it. Seventy times seven times seventy, perhaps. I was often irritated (if only inwardly) by the admonishment. It sounded trite, as wisdom usually does to stupid people. It took some time for me to realize that she was hitting on a signal truth; that if I ignored this truth, sooner or later it would knock me down, and hard.
Mothers. It's almost as if you're supposed to listen to them.
Having recognized the soundness of her advice, the next step was to apply it. These past seven or eight months, in particular, have been an exercise in learning to pay attention to my attention (and lack thereof). Where am I spending my time? How well can I focus on a single thing, and for how long? These inquiries are always difficult to stay abreast of, since I am, in a way, working against myself, and myself is generally one step ahead of me.
But I've kept at it. I see patterns now and I know what to make of them. I try to limit distractions, to anticipate and head them off wherever possible, and even to cut things loose when I can't find a way to handle them wisely. This sounds more dramatic than it is. In reality, the changes are small ones – like getting up earlier, shunning internet rabbit trails, writing down daily goals, ditching Instagram - but small change adds up to serious cash when there's enough of it. It's staggering, for instance, to consider how much time is lost, how often focus is shattered, just by mindlessly checking Twitter every few minutes to see if anyone retweeted your sorry ass.
A few months ago, in the midst of this self-investigation, I happened to be reading Anthony Esolen's Life Under Compulsion – an apt and encouraging book in many ways, but for the purpose of this post I'll recall only two paragraphs. Speaking of modern men and our relationship with noise, Esolen writes,
We don't actually listen to music, although we believe we do. We do not sit quietly and attend to it, as one might attend to Dvorak's New World Symphony, which Dvorak could write only because he had visited America, when there was an American, and gotten to know her people, and heard their songs. We play it as noise to accompany something else we are doing, quite often something that also bears the character of a compulsion – work at a dull job, 'hooking up' with someone whose name we haven't caught, jogging to lose those last five pounds or trim off that last inch of the commercially decried 'unwanted belly fat', cramming food or facts or forms to fill out.
We use 'music', a canned array of sounds, as a means to scratch an itch. It's a mechanical rake on the back of one's chair or brain. The use of the music reflects both its subject and its form. These are extraordinarily narrow. They cram those who cram into the tight anxious space of narcissistic self-inspection, but never introspection. (p. 121)
Promptly convicted, I closed the book. This was too much. I love music. I grew up loving music, born to parents who loved music, surrounded by brothers and sisters who loved music. I listen – or believe I listen - to hours of it every day. I routinely scour the web for new artists and composers. Recommend a good album and I'll immediately regard you as a not-too-shabby human being. I may even spend more money on music than I do on books.
And yet. For all my love of music, I still could not remember the last time I'd taken time to “sit quietly and attend to it.” All too often I was content with using music in the very way Esolen described: as noise to accompany whatever else I was doing, whether programming or working out or cleaning the kitchen. But what about giving my ear to music for no other reason than to appreciate it as music? Had I forgotten how to sit and listen and enjoy the thing for its own sake?
To correct this, I began setting aside time in my day to do nothing but listen. And by nothing but listen, I mean nothing but listen. No browsing the net, no lurking on social media, no tidying my desktop, no impromptu cleanings or busywork. Be all there, she'd said. I would be all there. That week I devoted a minimum of 15-20 minutes each day to Dvorak's New World Symphony. The week after that, it was Bruckner's Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. Then Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E Minor. And so on. It's now a habit, as much a part of my daily routine as breakfast. I wake up looking forward to it.
Now, my focus is on classical music, but the principal can be applied within other genres, too - though I'd wager the latest Drake single won't hold up very well under such intense scrutiny. Great music makes certain demands of the listener, in much the way that great books and paintings and films do. It is an investment. Don't cheat yourself.
Setting aside time solely for listening might seem like a luxury. I'm well aware that everyone's schedule is different and that we all have responsibilities. Having acknowledged that, it's also true that human beings tend to find time to do the things they want to do. 15 minutes a day really isn't all that much when you consider you probably spend at least that amount of time scrolling through Twitter.
Lastly, in case you're wondering, I'm not suddenly opposed to music as an accompaniment to other activities. But it should never be just an accompaniment. Einstein had the right idea: “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” Some things are worth taking time to savor all by themselves.