I showed a different taxi cab driver my printed-out map, and he shrugged the same shrug as the first driver, and I got in the back seat and headed for home. We weaved in and out of traffic, and he was too kind to sit in silence, so he turned to me after every expert driving maneuver and beckoned for a high-five. I smiled, smacked his hand. He laughed and laughed.
All around us, Istanbul was alive with business people walking home and children riding bike and gypsies pushing large carts loaded with recyclables down back alleyways. The stray dogs trotted from store front to store front, begging for bread. There was a legless man on the sidewalk with a small crate in front of him and a sign, written in Turkish.
The cab driver got me back to where I was staying, or close enough, and I walked the rest of the way. The sky hinted towards dusk and houselights looked like faraway stars. I went into the house, and my host family fed me a delicious dinner. We laughed about life and told stories about where we had lived, what we had done during these crazy things called lives. I helped clear the table and walked upstairs, leaving behind the sounds of dishes colliding in the sink.
Up in my room on the third floor, it was quiet. A bed, a couch, and a wardrobe. A small television. A fan that hummed into eternity. The roof slanted down on one side, and through the window, I could see a small patch of the Istanbul skyline. Across the street, a car dealership bumped up against a larger building that, on some nights, held wedding parties. Sometimes, I could hear the laughing voices of the wedding guests or catch a glimpse of the bride as she glided along inside that vast length of glass.
There are few things lonelier than standing quietly by yourself, watching a party take place on the other side of the street in a foreign city.
On those long, quiet nights, I listened to music. I read Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House and Istanbul. I thought about the hours I had spent with the man I was writing about: he was 50 years old and dying of colon and liver cancer. I wrote down his life, one sentence after another.
Late at night when the words had dried up, I pulled the covers up and stared at the oblong patch of light on the wall, the one that dropped in through the window, the one made up of streetlights and moonlight. I couldn’t sleep that first week, and at first, I thought it was simply jet lag, the separation of my body from its familiar part of the world. But as the days passed, I realized it was something besides time difference that kept me awake. It was fear.
Because in those long, silent hours of writing and thinking and reflecting on a dying man, I was forced to face my own mortality. For a few short days, the fear of death fell heavy on me. I thought about my wife and children, the short life I had lived up to that point, the things I had accomplished and the many more things I still wanted to do. I considered the books I still wanted to write and the journeys I wanted to take.
I had never been in a space of such overwhelming silence. I didn’t speak that language. I listened to someone else talk for three hours a day. I spent the rest of the day in near solitude, writing and thinking. For the first time I could remember, the outer self I had worked so hard to create was meaningless, and I was left staring at who I really was. What I really was. It was as if someone had turned me inside out.
I realized, as those silent days continued into a second week, and then a third, I had always used noise to avoid these thoughts. This subject. I had used busy-ness, loud conversations, and external noise to flat line the silence that would lead me to thoughts of death. The fear of death was at the very foundation of my dependence on noise.
Because silence sounds a lot like death.
Often, when I spend time in silence, I begin to realize the relative meaninglessness of so much of what I do. As I rest in that stillness, I am given the emotional space to deconstruct the life I have immersed myself in, and so much of it floats away, dandelion seeds in an end-of-April breeze.
I’m left to explore my true self. Not the self I work so hard to project, but the inner core of who I am.
A part of this core, a part of “who I am,” is a dying organism. And the sooner I recognize this fact, the sooner I can get on with living.
In John 12:24-25, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels – a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.”
In other words, our true self lies somewhere on the other side of a willingness to die.
And how do we find this True Self? One way is through the elimination of noise. Through the practice of silence.
Shawn Smucker is the author of Dying Out Loud, the story of the life of Stan Steward, a man who left his ordinary life to become a missionary to Turkey. Shawn lives Holtwood, Pennsylvania with his wife and four children. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.