Why do we fear solitude? Solitude from others or from being left alone with our thoughts?
It was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and theologian who said, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
I was reminded of this when I read of a study published in Science in which people chose to self-administer mild electrical shocks rather than simply be left alone for between 6 and 15 minutes with no other stimulation provided.
It seems that the people electrifying themselves were looking for a diversion to save them from their own thoughts. The alternative, that they were actually interested in the experience of being shocked is plausible, I suppose—it’s new, it’s different, and in a controlled way, it could be exciting, maybe—but I think the former is true.
I do know that choosing to withdraw from stimulation became a part of my life when I had young children—neither deliberate, not sought, but seeking this solitude became a form of unplanned, daily therapy.
Respite from the world
When children are in that high dependency period between zero and about eight, the demands are interminable. As well as the cooking and cleaning and the myriad other household tasks, parental involvement is required at mealtimes, bathing, undressing and dressing, story-time, more feeding, bedtime, lullabies, and maybe that’s it, maybe not, depending on the night. None begrudged. This isn’t a rant about the grind of parenthood. It’s just the reality of caring for small, dependent creatures.
By the time the kids were on their way to being asleep, and I could sit on the couch with a glass of wine, all I wanted to do was sit in calm contemplation. Even television filled my head with more noise, demanding that I keep up with its pace. I would usually open a book but find myself resting it gently back on my lap while I pondered something that had happened earlier. Since waking that morning, this became my first chance to just sit and think, with no need to respond, nor be alert. It became my sanctuary and my saviour.
Today’s unbroken connectivity and the unremitting supply of information with which to divert ourselves, parents are now told to idealise boredom. Kids should be allowed to be bored. They need to develop their ability to turn inwards, to develop their own resources, to rely on their imagination rather than being fed everything they might need. The world’s constant stimulation may be depriving them of building a bank of resources they can draw on later.
My kids have an endless supply of stimulation. I know that. They are children of the internet, or in Marc Prensky’s now famous term, true digital natives. But having stimulation on tap does not necessarily correlate to it being turned on, nor sought. I don’t think they’re harmed by it.
Can they sit quietly with their own thoughts? I think so. I’ve seen them all in various states of introversion. We are all adapting and going through an evolutionary rewiring to cope with the demands of the present.
Our changing needs
I read an article on whether the internet was making us stupid. The author’s internet was down and she’d taken her daughter to a library where they used the card indexing system to find books on the shelves for a school research project. Within no time, her daughter had given up, frustrated by the slowness and effort required for such patchy results. The author was asking herself what was lost, but I think this just tells us that certain skills have made way for new ones. I can’t sew. My grandmother sees that as a colossal failure. But I know that I have ten skills more useful to me than sewing.
Can sitting quietly be learned? The Atlantic article reporting on the electrical shock study concludes that contentment with sitting with only one’s thoughts can be taught. Perhaps we find a space for it when we truly need it. The popularity of yoga and meditation classes would seem to support this.
A place to find ourselves
Without even being aware of it, I snatched these moments in other parts of my day. In the lunchroom once, a colleague noticed that I had been sitting still, not reading the magazines, nor talking, for ten or fifteen minutes. I remember her double-take and quick question: was I okay?
Resting my overloaded brain from more inputs allowed me to process what I was doing, what I needed to do, what I wanted to do, what I hoped to do, and whether any of this was possible.
Was I okay? Sitting still, freed of any demands was a glorious opportunity and I sank into it with gratitude. Try it sometime.