Contrary to what I believed when I was younger, the basic state of our brain is one of chaos.
The reason that it took me so long to understand this is that my days often pass on autopilot. I sleep, wake up, check my phone, shower, eat and head off to work. Here I respond to messages, attend meetings, read and converse. My own and others’ expectations of how my day is supposed to unfold guide my hours up until the hour when I lie down again to sleep.
Whenever I fall out of this rut and sit quietly in a room alone, without any goal, without anything to look at, the chaos surfaces. It is difficult only to sit there. Multiple temptations surface. My brain, which functions so well on autopilot, is no longer helpful. It’s not easy being idle when nothing else is going on, it is quiet and you are alone. I often choose to do anything else rather than to fill the silence with myself.
I have gradually come to realize that the source of many of my problems lies precisely in this struggle. Of course, I am not the first person to have such thoughts. The philosopher and boredom theorist Blaise Pascal promoted this type of exploration as early as the 1600s: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” So a discomfort with being alone, holding one’s tongue and simply being did not start with the advent of TV in the 1950s, with the coming of the internet in the ’90s or with smartphones: it has always been a problem, and Pascal was probably the first to write about this feeling.
The constant impulse to turn to something else—TV series, gadgets, games—grows out of a need with which we are born, rather than being a cause. This disquiet that we feel has been with us since the beginning; it is our natural state. The present hurts, wrote Pascal. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves.
Of course, such opportunities for interruption have increased dramatically over the last century, a trend that seems set to continue. We live in the age of noise. Silence is almost extinct.
One of Apple’s founders, Steve Jobs, understood not only the benefits but also the dangers associated with using the technology that he helped to invent. Jobs limited his own children’s access to Apple products. I have more faith in Steve Jobs as a responsible father than as a visionary marketing genius. According to a much-referenced study, we humans are worse at concentrating than a goldfish. Humans today lose their concentration after eight seconds. In the year 2000 it was twelve seconds, while the goldfish averaged nine. I suspect that the research on goldfish is extremely limited and that the performance of these creatures should be taken with a pinch of salt. I mention this study for the conclusions it draws about humans: with each passing second, it seems increasingly difficult for us to focus on a single topic.
We find an echo of Pascal in a note by the writer David Foster Wallace, who is from the same generation as me:
Bliss—a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you.
But ride these waves out, he concluded, and it will feel like finally getting a drink of water after many days in the desert.
So Wallace’s solution is to accept this state and then do something with it. It’s about functioning well in an environment that shuts out everything that’s vital and human: breathing without air. “The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.”
I stopped at that word: unborable.
Perhaps it should be the other way around—that it might be good for people to occasionally be a little bit bored? To refrain from plugging themselves in. To stop and wonder about what it is that we are actually doing. I think that’s what Wallace meant too. When he was a small boy, attending primary school, he shared his grand ambitions with his mother: “I wanted to create a brilliant play, but it wouldn’t start until all of the audience members except for one had left the theatre because they got so bored and quit the performance.”
I like that the only thing required here is endurance.
From SILENCE: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge. Copyright © 2017 by Erling Kagge. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.
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