Listening for the Whisper

“Mr. Brown can

whisper whisper

. . . very soft

very high . . .

like the soft,

soft whisper

of a butterfly.

Maybe YOU can, too.

I think you ought to try.”

            – Dr. Seuss –

Maybe you recognized that quote from Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? That was the book my toddler grandson chose for me to read to him last Friday before nap. As I read it, I was reminded of how hard it is to teach young children to whisper. If they figure it out, it’s a major accomplishment. Not only is the act of whispering hard for them, but it’s also hard for them to understand when to whisper – in church, when someone else is resting . . . anyway, we’re working on it.

After my grandson woke up from his nap, we took a walk – actually, I walked, he rode in his stroller. But it was a beautiful, hot summer day with billowy clouds in a bright blue sky. A nice breeze cooled us off. My grandson likes to point out sounds that he hears. Dogs barking. Jets overhead. Hammering from construction work. A lawnmower. And wind through the trees – another kind of whisper. It sounded like ocean waves coming to shore at the beach. I wondered, what word describes that sound?

It wasn’t the first time I had puzzled over that question. When I was writing a novel a few years ago, I wanted a word for the whispery sound of wind blowing through the leaves of trees. I discovered that there’s actually a very good word that describes it: susurrous, which means “full of whispering sounds.” As a noun, it’s susurration, derived from the Latin for “hum.” It’s probably the origin of our word “swarm.” A swarm does make a humming, whispery sound. The other options I came up with were sigh, sough, breath, murmur, hush, rustle, swish, shuffle, brush. I think I used them all in my story at one point or another. I think I even went with shush and shhh once or twice. I did not use susurrous. It just seemed a bit pretentious.

I’ve been susurrous myself on occasion. When I taught preschoolers, I found that if I wanted to get the children’s attention, instead of raising my voice, lowering it often made them get quiet and lean in to hear what I was saying. Whispering gave my words the aura of a secret, a special “guess what?” “Sometimes you have to be silent to be heard,” said Polish poet Stanislaw Lec. Or if not silent, at least whispery.

But sometimes we’re the ones who need to get quiet and lean in to listen. An old Bible story tells about the prophet Elijah hiding in a mountain cave from the tyrant king Ahab. God tells Elijah to meet him outside the cave. So Elijah steps out, only to face a windstorm so fierce it sends rocks tumbling down the mountainside. But God isn’t in the wind. Then the earth begins to shake. But God isn’t in the earthquake. Then a fire sweeps across the mountain. But God isn’t in the fire. By this time, Elijah has retreated back into the cave. After the fire dies away, Elijah hears a soft whisper. He wraps his cloak around his face (afraid of what he might find?) and steps out of the cave. It’s then that he hears God. God is in the whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, points out that because we’re bombarded with messages coming at us all day every day, “It’s harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths.” There’s a lot of windstorm and shaking and fire in the world around us. But the soft, still voices are often the ones that lead us to moral wisdom.

In Elijah’s case, the whisper outside the cave asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Good question – what are you doing here? So . . . what are you doing here? If you don’t know the answer – or if you have so many answers you don’t know which to pick first – may I suggest going for something simple? Like “I’m trying to plant seeds of kindness everywhere I go” or “I’m learning and practicing love.” Either one will get us out of the cave. We’ll face windstorms earthquakes, and raging fire. But if we keep listening, past it all is the soft, still voice in our heart.

So maybe we need to learn not only when and where to shout but also when and where to whisper. Then maybe when all the shouting and blowing and raging and shaking is done, the whispers will still be speaking, loud and clear.

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy