If We Want Individuality And Quietude, We’ll Have To Work Together

My backyard is quite modest in size, and yet I have noticed in one respect it is remarkably vast. For while others gaze upon the space inside the fence which demarcates their domain, that defined plot upon which they consider themselves lord and master, I am staring up at the sky as I hang my clothes.

It’s peaceful at the moment, early enough that my neighbors aren’t busy with their noisy gas-powered and electric-powered tools trying to transform the bit of nature they’ve been appropriated into something that conforms to and is pleasing to the society that they themselves conform.

It is odd that a nation that so prides itself on personal freedoms and individuality tries so hard to demonstrate to others how well they are able to play a game in which the rules are written by others. There is a striking degree of conformity in most any neighborhood, a conformity from which only the lazy and the infirm are exempt. Somewhere, someone is in their basement piling clothes into a dryer so that they can rush out to their backyard, leaf blower in hand, so they can return to the screens which they look to for connectedness. As for me, I can hear the birds, at least until the lawnmowers start their appointed rounds.

Nobody is given points for listening to the birds or staring at a beautiful blue early summer sky. That’s why so few of us do it, because we are not rewarded for doing it, at least not by others. One has to not care about what others think in order to plug in to nature. One has to turn off the outside world — and by this I mean our perceived opinions of what other people think — in order to experience that very essential relationship between self and nature.

I look up to the sky as I once did as a child — as I never remember doing in my twenties, or my thirties, or my forties — and view it now with no less wonder. Clouds for me are wondrous things, even without the need to find any similarity to an elephant or a former president. The occasional bird flies overhead and I am amazed at how high he actually soars. But unlike with my neighbors, of whom I am sometimes jealous, I do not envy this bird for what he has that I lack.

Whatever one’s opinion of Christianity, I cannot help but think we’ve lost something when we stopped viewing Sunday as a day of rest and quiet. When I was young my mother always insisted the grass not be cut on Sunday, and I remember when visiting the small town where she grew up that all places of business were closed. A small black market existed for those who wanted to purchase a 6-pack of beer on the Lord’s Day because even something as vital to the community as the beer store was closed.

Some good things cannot be achieved individually but must be acquired collectively. Quiet is one such thing. It only takes one person with a weed whacker to deprive a neighborhood of the sound of the birds. Without regard and respect for the things we share, collectively we all lose out. If we are unable to share in the silence, we will all be drowned out by the noise.

The individual can only find himself in the silence, meaning to say that one can only really realize what gives them true happiness when the rest of the world is not intruding upon their thoughts and senses. One may be able to demonstrate their individuality amidst the turbulence, but one does not find it there. We build our fences in order to keep ourselves separate and distinct from our neighbors — to give us privacy — but fences do not block out the din that comes from others trying to shape the bit of nature that is within their boundaries.

Paradoxically, we can never hope to achieve individuality or solitude by ourselves. If we wish to develop ourselves as individuals, we must be sure to create space for others to do the same. We cannot compete our way to becoming our best selves, we have to fashion a world in which we can all feel comfortable doing so. Nor can we hope to find solitude by popping in our earbuds or flipping through our phones, because while this may drown out the noise made by others, it does not give us access to the silence we crave.

I am sometimes amazed at how I can feel such a sudden and impactful connection to nature even in the small space of my backyard. More and more I am beginning to imagine how it must have felt to people who knew nothing BUT nature, whose entire world was nothing but trees and sky and water and birds, a consciousness uncluttered by numbers or calendars or media manipulation. It is a connection that I am somehow able to get some appreciation of, even here in my humble little yard. Just so long as my neighbor does not choose to fire up his air compressor, just so long as I myself make a little space for it, for myself and for others.

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