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Friday, July 21, 2017

We All Hear Voices–It Just Depends On Whose

Billy Randall heard voices, or at least so he thought until an audiologist diagnosed him with ‘High Frequency Wave Distress’, a disorder which flipped on certain neuron switches when he picked up high frequency electronic transmissions and distorted them into seemingly human voices.

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He never accepted this diagnosis because the voices were so clear, persuasive, and insistent.  There was no way that they were simply the result of some electronic interference.

His parents, who like most were willing to listen, accept the possibility that their son had a special talent, and help wherever they could, never spoke openly to each other about their real concern – that their son was a loony. 

Billy knew that his parents did not believe him and if anything tolerated him; so after a while he stopped telling them about what he had heard or overheard that day.  More importantly he knew, after a few humiliating experiences, that sharing his uniqueness with friends and classmates was a big mistake.

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Billy’ reception – what he picked up downtown, at construction sites, and at airports – was varied and not unusual.  In some cases it was like eavesdropping like the afternoon at Willow Park when he heard two women from Chicago discussing their recent trip to Alaska.  Sometimes he heard admonitions not unlike those of Father Brophy; and not infrequently he heard what he called ‘otherworldly voices’. 

Not God necessarily, but certainly no one of any consequence in New Brighton or anywhere he had ever been, or anyplace he had seen on television; so by default he assumed the voices were disembodied.  The power of suggestion being what it is, dead people were the easiest explanation.

There were enough movies like The Sixth Sense’ (“I see dead people’) to influence a young mind.
By the time he was a young adult, however, he began to give more consideration to epiphanies and other religious experiences.  Perhaps the voices he heard were indeed those of the many incarnations of God.  If so, these could not possibly be random receptions.  God would not broadcast indiscriminately on the chance that his transmissions would be picked up.  His nature was purposeful.  If the voices were indeed those of God, Billy had been chosen.

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Mark Salzman wrote an interesting book (Lying Awake) about a  nun in a monastery who experiences visions and is regarded by the others as a spiritual master. Sister John, however is also plagued by powerful headaches which, medical authorities conclude, may be serious, life-threatening, and the cause of her visions.  She then faces a devastating choice.  Is this ‘grace’ that she feels God has bestowed merely an illness ? And will a 'cure' mean the end of her illuminations and spiritual salvation?

Billy Randall felt himself in the same situation.  If the increasingly beautiful, poetic, spiritual voices which inspired him daily were nothing but synapses misfiring, then where would he be?  If he ignored the possibility of neuro-physiological anomaly, then he was being irrational and stubborn.  Yet so what if the visions and voices were neurological in origin?  Perhaps God had chosen this particular avenue for his enlightenment.

Image result for images book lying awake salzman

Of course there was a third option – that he was becoming what his parents had suspected all along.  Loony.  In fact he could be victim of a perfect storm – a brain malfunction exploited by God to produce miraculous visions; and a serious mental illness causing wild distortions far beyond anything else.

He knew that before he lost his lucidity, he had to do something.  But what? Deny his increasingly profound spirituality? Get a few nips and tucks in his cerebral cortex, stop the interference, and get normal? Admit that the wild visions now accompanying the voices were a sure sign of schizophrenia which had to be arrested before he did something crazy? And where to turn first?

The Church he knew, of Father Brophy was any example, would certainly encourage him just like the nuns at Sister John’s priory did.  Who can guess the mind of God? Take what you can get.
Psychiatrists would give him enough psycho-active medication to quiet the most disturbed bi-polar madman; and neurologists would want to snip a few connections here and there in his brain no matter what the opinions of Father Brophy or medical doctors.

The older Billy got, the worse – or better, depending on perspective – he became.  Living in a large metropolitan area in the midst of a construction boom, ubiquitous electronic devices, and a tangled network of high-frequency connections assured that he heard voices all the time.  Bi-polar disorder was becoming de rigeur as an explanation for all kinds of personality quirks, and New Age religion always open to and encouraging of alternate spiritual experiences, was increasing in popularity and influence. 

In other words, figuring out what was right or wrong with him became literally impossible.
He disappeared after 40; or at least no one in New Brighton had any clue about his whereabouts.  Most assumed that he had not gone the neurological route or he would be still in town practicing law or medicine.  Some felt that he was in a Carpathian monastery in the Alps or some other secluded place where distinctions between neurological disorders and spiritual perception are never made.  Many were certain that he had been committed.

Image result for images carpathian monastery into great silence

Truman Capote on more than one occasion said that his book Other Voices, Other Rooms was a son's search for his father who was "a father who, in the deepest sense, was nonexistent”; and "the central theme was my search for the existence of this essentially imaginary person."  Capote always heard the voice of his father, imaginary and absent though he was.

The voice of John the Baptist “crying out in the wilderness” has always been a metaphor for those who refuse to hear the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ.  That of Cassandra has been a secular parallel to John – unheard by those who should know better, who ignore signs, history, and original insight.
Everyone knows the difference between listening and hearing.  When you listen, you pay attention, reflect on the words being said, and either take them to heart or formulate a response to them.



When you hear, your mind is elsewhere.  Words go in and out, thoughts wander, ambience may be felt (the room is too hot or too cold), the attractive woman in the corner and the smell of cooking roast beef noticed, but the speakers words do not register.

We also hear the sound of waves, distant traffic, birdsongs, barking, the refrigerator humming, and the A/C turning off and on.  Hearing is ambient and non-selective.   There is nothing to listen to, only sounds which fade in and out of recognition or are marked by the brain as too intrusive or too alluring to ignore.

Sometimes silence is part of impression rather than the lack of it. The density and impenetrability of Conrad’s jungles are part of their intimidation and terror.  As Marlow proceeds up the river to find Kurtz (Heart of Darkness) he says:
We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted man-groves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.
Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for night-mares.


Sometimes we hear nothing.  Tunnel vision coopts hearing. We can be so absorbed in writing or reading that all ambient sounds disappear.  We hear nothing.

Listening on the other hand requires a high cognitive function. It takes attentiveness, interest, and patience.  The listener ascribes value to the words of a speaker, wants to record, parse, and analyze them for meaning and intent.  Each word spoken in delicate negotiations has its own meaning whether literal or figurative; whether stand-alone or part of a sentence or soliloquy.
Other authors like Hawthorne have written about ancestral voices. 

The Salem house is a symbol of Hawthorne’s ambivalence, for generations of both sharp-edged, canny descendants and ne’er-do-wells have resided in it.
In almost every generation, nevertheless, there happened to be some one descendant of the family gifted with a portion of the hard, keen sense, and practical energy, that had so remarkably distinguished the original founder. His character, indeed, might be traced all the way down, as distinctly as if the Colonel himself, a little diluted, had been gifted with a sort of intermittent immortality on earth.
At two or three epochs, when the fortunes of the family were low, this representative of hereditary qualities had made his appearance, and caused the traditionary gossips of the town to whisper among themselves, "Here is the old Pyncheon come again! Now the Seven Gables will be new-shingled!" From father to son, they clung to the ancestral house with singular tenacity of home attachment.
Image result for images Puritan men salem 17th century

There is a spectrum of voices from those of Billy Randall, Sister John, to schizophrenics, to the imaginary ones of Truman Capote, to the loud but unheard ones of St. John the Baptist and Cassandra, and to the unspoken voices of the past.  There are voices of conscience, fathers, imagination, and penance – some ignored and others which can never be switched off. 

 We tend to give more dues to the voices we can actually hear; but those imagined or recalled are even more important.  Billy Randall was neither deranged, badly wired, or a prophet.  He was only sitting at one end of the auditory spectrum which has little to do with sound.

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