Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Longing for Solitude

 © Charles D. Hayes 

A few months ago, while presenting a September University workshop, I made a point of suggesting that each generation longs for something it grew up without—something that is likely to be disrespected or readily dismissed by the generation to follow. This prompted a question from a participant about today’s younger generation currently in high school and college. What are they growing up without? What will they long for and subsequently rediscover in a few years? It didn’t take long to come up with an answer—something I suspect will someday in the not too distant future seem like a profound breakthrough. The revelation hit me like a lightning bolt: what’s missing today is solitude.

If history is a reliable measure, today’s frenzy of texting and tweeting, with cell phones and a never-ending selection of new gadgetry with which to connect oneself with the rest of the world, is going to produce a backlash. But whether the repercussion will have lasting reverberations is an open question. The rush to cities decades ago resulted in a back-to- the-land movement that seems to have subsided, even though telecommunications opens up more opportunities for living in the country than ever before. So perhaps, in the long run, multitasking will be humanity’s destiny. I’m quite confident it won’t be mine though.

Many people spend a big part of their vacations answering business e-mail. Millions upon millions of people increasingly live in a constant state of perpetual distraction, where one interesting subject of focus morphs into another before the previous matter of attention is fully satisfied or absorbed. In effect, individuals are being overwritten both by their tools and by the crowd.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “solitude is impractical and yet society is fatal” and “It is easy to live after the world’s opinions; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Of course, it’s doubtful that Emerson could have envisioned a society like ours, where the horde follows us to the bathroom and to bed, and awakens us in the night to connect. But I can imagine what Emerson would have said about tweeting, and I suspect it would be an eloquent expression of outrage. He had little tolerance for chit-chat. There is, however, growing resistance by more and more people to being constantly connected, and I would wager that it’s only a matter of time before this resistance begins to get wider public attention.

Scientists sometimes express annoyance when analogies are drawn to subatomic particles as a way to illustrate a point by people who don’t know enough about quantum physics to know what they are talking about. Knowing that risk, I’m going to join those ranks with regard to what’s known as the observer effect, which says that the act of observing subatomic particles affects their behavior. Even though I don’t have a clue how this works, I am quite confident that this analogy applies doubly to human behavior. There is no doubt that our actions are affected by the eyes of others, and can influence us in the same way.  

So, if a person spends most of his or her time responding to email, texting, and participating in our vast cornucopia of social media, then what becomes of the self? What happens to our individuality and authenticity if everything we do is a reaction at the behest of another individual or group? The very thought of living one’s life as a perpetual reaction to external stimuli is disturbing, and yet at some level this is philosophically inescapable. The antidote, I suspect, exists only as a matter of degree and comes from thoughtful contemplation. Such contemplation requires some measure of privacy and quite possibly a generous serving of solitude as well, at least enough to dissipate distraction.    
Philosophers through the ages have expressed the notion that there is strength and creativity to be gained from brief periods of isolation. Albert Einstein observed that we shun solitude in our youth but cherish it as we get older, and I couldn’t agree more, except that I clearly recall being fond at times of being alone during my childhood. I used to spend many hours by myself in the woods. Now, with five acres of tall timber on my property, I feel as if I live in the woods. I admit to liking e-mail and some social media, but I do not text and I will not tweet on the principle that chit-chat is an absurd waste of time. Life is much too complicated to reduce the essence of our experience to 140 characters.

We are all affected by our interrelationships in society, and much of what we do each day is not what we started out to do. Instead, it is the result of a reaction to something someone else has done. What we think about is affected, in large part, by the media we use. Moreover, if one is not very careful, becoming subordinate to one’s tools of inquiry is a real possibility. Spending most of your waking time on Twitter is analogous to being a proton perpetually spooked by no-matter.

In The Shallows, a book about how the Internet is affecting our brains, Nicholas Carr observes that Google is in the business of distraction. We think we are using it, but it may be more accurate to suggest that Google is using us. Carr discusses the fact that young people today are shying away from novels because the sentences are too long and difficult. How unfortunate that as society gets more and more complex and our problems grow exponentially, our citizens become less and less thoughtful.

Carr writes, “A personal letter written in, say, the nineteenth century bears little resemblance to a personal e-mail or text message written today. Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.” I suspect it’s much more than that; it’s a loss of the substance of critical thought at a time when the need is so important that it’s hard to overstate the case.

So, anticipating a backlash that my generation may not live to see in full measure, we can only hope our children and grandchildren will someday reawaken to the realization that without setting aside sufficient time for contemplation, without a dedication to thoughtfulness, humanity’s future is suspect. While it may not seem so readily apparent now, someday soon I trust it will be clear to anyone striving to live fully that thoughtfulness is what holds society together and that some solitude is necessary in order to nourish autonomy. Otherwise there is nothing to tweet about.                  

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