“If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there, does it make a sound?”
It’s a famous question. A thought experiment, really. And it popped into my head the other day when I was lonely and didn’t have anyone to share my thoughts with. I just wanted a real person with real ears and a real heart to listen to me so I could make sense of my own mind and emotions. I know this may sound melodramatic and self-pitying, and it is probably both of those things, but I was feeling like that archetypal tree. That poor tree, alone in the forest, invisible and unknown.
To be honest, I didn’t know the full extent of the philosophical and religious discussion around this fallen tree. Only today did I discover that others have identified that famous tree with the same human experience I did. William Fosset wrote in Natural States in 1754, “If a tree falls in a park and there is no-one to hand, it is silent and invisible and nameless.” Science fiction humorist Dave Romm must have been drawing on the same premise when he quipped, “If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to write the back cover blurb…” (http://www.spectacle.org/396/scifi/tree.html)
Seriously though, most of us have, at one point or another, felt like that tree: “I’m making a noise! HEY!! Can anyone hear me? Will somebody please listen!? I’m dying over here!” It’s a legitimate need – the need to be heard. We come to know ourselves as other people hear, respond, and reflect back (intentionally or unintentionally) what they experience about us. Psychologists call it “the looking glass self.” Part of the way we develop our sense of self is by discovering how others respond to us. Additionally, when we put words on an experience and share it verbally with another person in a way that makes logical sense of it, we’re completing a significant step in our brain’s processing of the experience (Karl Lehman, Outsmarting Yourself). It allows the experience – or at least elements of it – to move into a quiet “completed” state rather than continuing to bounce around inside us trying to work its way out.
In my earlier life, when I was much more relationally disconnected and I didn’t share my internal life with people, I would process it in writing and prayer. Often I felt God was the only person who could hear me. He didn’t necessarily feel close. But even if he heard me through a long tunnel, there was a listening presence on the other end. It was better than talking into a vacant room or sending my thoughts out into empty, eternal space. Still, the underlying current of isolation occasionally burst to the surface in “falling tree” moments of existential anguish when I felt completely unheard, insubstantial and thin, like I didn’t exist in physical space and nobody could hear me even if I screamed.
In more recent years (thank God!) receiving Immanuel Prayer and being surrounded by a strong Immanuel Lifestyle community has helped me experience both God and others as close, relationally and physical present, and ready to listen to my words and my heart. I have come to feel substantial, like there’s a body attached to my self, like my presence makes an imprint on the world. If anything, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction: I feel very relationally connected to people, but God, who is close in spirit without a physical body, seems more difficult to sense - not more difficult than he used to be, but more difficult than another human whose listening ears, responsive expression, and touch I can see and feel.
These days the “falling tree” moments are infrequent, shorter, and less intense. But, like the other day in the car when I couldn’t find a someone to listen, I still have them: “I’m making a noise! HEY!! Can anyone hear me? Will somebody please listen!? I’m dying over here!” And right there in the car in my “falling tree” moment, I was surprised by a familiar voice, attached to a familiar ear. Actually, it wasn’t a voice. It was more like a gentle nudge, but it was clear what God meant by that nudge: “Hey yourself! Stop shouting, okay! I’m here. I’m here. It’s okay. I’m listening.” And you know? He did. Not from a distance but right there in the car he listened. I shared because I could feel him listening. And when I finished, I felt that sense of quiet completion that means I was finally done processing – at least for today – the scrambled mess inside me.
I was grateful, and I told him so. He surprised me by his final comment: “In spite of what the philosophers and physicists may say, every falling tree has made a noise for all of time. Not because there’s automatically a noise when a tree falls or because they make sound waves, but because I have heard them all.”
“Not a sparrow [and not a tree] falls to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29)