The distress signal is the first signal we learn to make, soon after entering a harsh, cold world where we will depend on the warmth of others for our survival. In the torrid first years, a multitude of signals are added to this primal signal, our soul stylus writing its own signature upon the world.
Our own demands, however, are soon crowded by awareness of the demands and expectations of others. The blind trust by which we scream for anyone in particular to relieve our pain and discomfort is replaced by a more circumspect, socially-conscious attitude. And it is reflected in increased reliance on rational rather than personal signs. Our signal becomes buried in noise. Buried – not lost. Or, not lost irrevocably. Listen through the static and you will hear the transmission, faint, but nonetheless there and there completely.
Noise, not signal, seems to define our existence in this world. Our ears are crowded. We are beset on all sides by sounds and sounds and sounds. We do not know what frequency to set our radios to, in order to hear an honest, authentic communication instead of some corporate shill. Why do we long, more and more, to escape into the wilderness? Why do we build miles of hiking trails? Is it so that we can outrun the pace of the noise machines? We give off our own noise as well. Even as we long to hear and be heard, we make haste to encrypt our signal, like a fig leaf made out of static. Through all that noise, though, we might be able to hear signals as well, some of them distress calls.
I know people who seem like they were born as giant radio signal receivers. They quiver with received transmissions–sometimes completely unaware–and become noise-reduction and signal-amplification systems, bearing the on the lines of their faces the experiences and suffering of others. However, just because some people seem born with this ability does not mean that it is an art which can not be learned and practiced by anyone. In fact, I think our mutual condition of flesh and blood demands that we learn it. Quid pro quo? Maybe, but I don’t think so. It is simply a relativization of priority. In white water sports, in which calamity can be swift and unforgiving, an appropriate response to seeing a raft or kayak on the side of the river is to pat the top of your head, elbow out. It is a simple signal which means “are you ok.” Drowning is not a flashy affair, despite the movies. It is accompanied by the subtle, uncontrollable instinctive drowning response, in which shouting and moving of the extremities cease entirely as the body conserves energy needed to lift the mouth and nose above the surface of the water. Life has its own swift and unforgiving calamities, and any signal that someone is drowning may be just as subtle and hard to detect. But if we make a point to undertake the art of listening intently, we will hear all kinds of humming in the air. Follow the humming. It will take us to the great acoustic chambers of the human soul, which reverberate with all kinds of inner joys and sorrows.
I had a thought once that one of the worst fates would be to be able to hear calls for distress but to be unable to do anything about it. A pilot circling endless open seas, hearing countless MAYDAYS coming from beneath the clouds, but without any ability to respond. Not unlike Cassandra, whose blessing was to be able to tell the future, but whose curse was that no one would believe her. Surely there are times when we are forced into such an impotent position. Yet we would realize also our power, if we learned to hear, through all the noise, the faint, insistent beep; the soul bottled in speech.