The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

"Too Great For Words": Silence in Technology, part 1

Most people bristle at the notion that technology is biased. Biases are like prejudices, which are bad, but we like our technology, so we don’t want to believe that it might be similarly warped. Isn’t technology neutral? Isn’t the important thing what you do with it?

Now technology is a bit evasive, always slipping behind mirrors by giving us what we asked for—relentlessly. It’s reflexive that way and forces us to admit that, yes, we did program it to do just that.

To get a good bead on technology, you’ve got to be very quiet. Technology is skittish, like a wild animal. If you’re going to hunt it, or even just track it, you have to be stealthy. And the stealthiest hunters are always silent. They are present but unheard. This is the tack I recommend for studying technology—presence and silence.

Perhaps some would disagree, but silence and presence has great value. These two are almost inextricably tied together. Now, silence has many meanings—often negative—but let us narrow that meaning to a single, positive: empathy. Consider Job, the legendary sufferer. Now Job’s friends are known for their long-winded advice. But what most forget is that when they first came to comfort him, they sat with him, saying nothing, for seven days. Why? Because “they saw that his suffering was too great for words.” For a week, they were present and silent. They were with Job in his grief.

I love this moment in the story. While much of the book of Job is often baffling, this moment in Job is pregnant with wisdom. Before 30-some chapters of chatter begins, this moment of silence. It reminds me of something I learned about the Amish.

In Amish communities, silence isn’t simply way to express resentment or contentment. Words, they believe, cannot explain some mysteries in life, but silence creates space for understanding realities that cannot be verbalized. Job’s friends understood this too.

Silence isn’t always a method for shutting someone out. Sometimes silence is a way of letting someone in. Silence can communicate openness and acceptance—and empathy—allowing for deeper understanding to well up. The Amish understand this. Job’s friends did too. So how can we understand it better?

Let’s imagine a modern-day Job. Satan struck him by God’s permission. Job’s small business burned to the ground. Insurance had a loophole and will pay him no damages. His children were killed in the blaze. His retirement accounts were defrauded by identity thieves. Job has nothing.

When Job’s friends hear of this they are filled with compassion for Job. Each is genuinely distraught at the news. But each one lives far away, and their lives are busy like most of ours are. It’s costly to fly across the country to see Job. What’s more, they can’t get much time off from work to care for a non-relative. The good news is that nowadays they can communicate their compassion even across these great distances.

So Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar each sit down the very evening they get the news. They do not delay. Their compassion moves them to respond immediately. They are true and committed friends. They reach out to Job. They set aside their agendas to connect with him.

Eliphaz is the first to reach Job. Eliphaz is an active, extroverted guy, so he decides a phone call is the clearest way to convey his compassion to Job. He dials the number. Job’s wife picks up.

“How is he?” Eliphaz asks. He needs a visual. He tries to imagine where Job might be sitting in their home. What might be going on around him. Are there other mourners there? Is there palpable grief hanging in the air? Anger? Silence? Eliphaz is intent on molding his soul to Job’s situation as much as possible, to disturb him as little as possible. Eliphaz simply wants Job to know that he cares.

Job’s wife is herself distraught, hardly able to put words together. Finally Eliphaz interrupts her, “Can I talk to him?” She mumbles, Eliphaz hears shuffling, the passing of the phone, and then heavy breathing. Job.

“Job.” Eliphaz says his name. “Job, it’s me, Eliphaz. I just got the news. Job, I’m so sorry.”

Job voice is low, nearly inaudible. Outside, Eliphaz’s wife is talking to the neighbor and her voice carries through the open window, so Eliphaz doesn’t catch all Job’s words. “What was that? I—Job, I couldn’t hear all that, can you speak up?” He scrambles to shut the window.

Job really has nothing to say. And Eliphaz too falls silent. What can be said? Somehow, there is an expectation of sound when using the phone. Silence is senseless on the phone. The illusion of presence can only be communicated with sound. But how can Eliphaz impose such an expectation on his dear friend—whose suffering is too deep for words?

When the heavy breathing disappears, Eliphaz pauses, tensing up for a moment. “Job? Are you still there?” A grunt. “Oh, okay, sorry, I thought the call might’ve gotten dropped.”

Eliphaz’s arm soon wearies of holding the phone to his ear, and this silence seems useless. Eliphaz is distracted again, hearing the back door open and shut, his wife coming in. Then she’s at the door, looking at him questioningly. He waves her off, even though neither he nor Job is saying anything. Finally, Eliphaz isn’t sure what else he can say. The silence feels useless.

“Job, um, listen I’m going to go. Again, I’m so sorry. Hannah and I, we’re so sorry. Job, call if you need anything.” More mumbling, then the line is dead. Eliphaz breathes. Still frustrated, feeling powerless. “What else could I do?” He wonders.

(In Part Two: Bildad sends a handwritten letter, and Zophar texts Job.)
(In Part Three: Eliphaz skypes Job. And conclusion.)