I’ve lived in Babel for some time now. At first, I would just come to visit. I was excited by the riot of faces and voices and ideas. When I left, the clamor of the place jangled in my ears for a while and it was good to get away but, over time, I developed a taste for it. I began to stay longer and when I left it was the quiet that seemed strange to me as if something was missing. Eventually, I moved in.
And so it was quite a shock last week when a tree limb, bowing under a heavy layer of ice, snapped and fell, dragging a power line to the ground and severing my connection to Babel. The restless city, to which I was linked through television and radio and computer, fell silent and I was alone with my thoughts, which is to say, quite alone indeed. This was late afternoon and the brooding sky was already growing dark and, with it, our soundless, waterless and rapidly cooling home. The darkness and silence felt like an invasion, a blitzkrieg of some foreign power, suddenly cutting us off from the world.
It took a few minutes to recognize how wrong I was, which tells you something about the severity of my condition. So addicted have I become to consuming the clamor of Babel that I felt lost without it. Our little house had not moved, nor the sky above. The quiet and the dark had always been there, though for so long suppressed that they seemed new to me. The rhythms of the planet, which felt strange and arbitrary, were those into which I had been born. When Babel fell, the invasion ended and I reentered the real world. I did not like it.
My television remote and my browser have given me a God’s-eye view of the earth. I can see almost anything happening almost anywhere. The world is small, I think. But I sometimes forget the distinction between observing and experiencing. Good-looking and intelligent people provide expert commentary on everything under the sun. I know what’s important, I think. But I forget the difference between hearing and thinking. My devices allow me to effortlessly calculate, navigate and communicate. I am capable, I think. But I have forgotten the distinction between using and understanding.
When we came to our senses we lit a few candles, huddled on the sofa and read some stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, soon wondering why we do not do this more often. C. S. Lewis warned (even before the television and computer era) against “chronological snobbery”: the mistaken sense that we see the world (and ourselves) clearly. He suggested a regular diet of voices from previous generations to help us see into the blind spots common to our age. What seems odd about the ideas of Laura, or Mr. Lewis or (far better) the Bible may, in fact, be the shape of a forgotten truth, seen through the distorted lens of our forgetful culture.
I’ve lived in Babel for some time now and I have been changed by it. When it is taken from me I feel awkward, empty and lonesome – a consumer made superfluous by the absence of something to consume. People talk about the tower of Babel but, reading the story again this morning, I notice that the problem was really the city of Babel, that riot of faces and voices and ideas that murdered solitude, excelled at self-congratulation and, yes, sprouted into a tower. But I don’t think that God was afraid of towers. He stopped the riot of Babel, as he perhaps stopped my electricity, so we would be quiet for a little while, reenter the world and, possibly, hear his voice.