I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train in the tube stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
East Coker, The Four Quartets
It’s been a while since I added to the ‘things I’m reading’ series.
This essay by Zat Rana, called The Most Important Skill Nobody Taught You, is about the work of mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal. It’s incredibly thought-provoking and I wanted to share it with you. The whole thing is worth reading.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Pascal famously said in his book Pensées.
I had a lot of time to do this as a kid. Being an only child has its advantages, and this was one of them. I learned early and often that only boring people are bored, so if I wanted something to do, I had better figure out how to entertain myself.
It wasn’t that hard. I read a lot and had a really weird set of air castles. I’ve said this before, but this skill turned out to be valuable later in life.
“Today, more than ever, Pascal’s message rings true. If there is one word to describe the progress made in the last 100 years, it’s connectedness,” Rana says.
“Information technologies have dominated our cultural direction. From the telephone to the radio to the TV to the internet, we have found ways to bring us all closer together, enabling constant worldly access.
I can sit in my office in Canada and transport myself to practically anywhere I want through Skype. I can be on the other side of the world and still know what is going on at home with a quick browse.
I don’t think I need to highlight the benefits of all this. But the downsides are also beginning to show. Beyond the current talk about privacy and data collection, there is perhaps an even more detrimental side-effect here.
We now live in a world where we’re connected to everything except ourselves.”
Nobody taught me how to be connected to myself. I learned when I was young what it was like. Then for a while, I forgot. But somehow through the years, I remembered that feeling. Something in me liked and missed it.
I think I’m weird in this, my enjoyment of hours of silence. Most people I know dislike being alone. We instinctively run from it.
Even I feel uncomfortable with myself at times. Much of my solitude is spent with the company of nature or books, rather than truly alone with myself. Often I don’t like what I see there.
Why does this matter?
“The less comfortable you are with solitude, the more likely it is that you won’t know yourself,” Rana says. “Then, you’ll spend even more time avoiding it to focus elsewhere. In the process, you’ll become addicted to the same technologies that were meant to set you free.
Just because we can use the noise of the world to block out the discomfort of dealing with ourselves doesn’t mean that this discomfort goes away.”
Who really cares, other than our therapists, if we’re comfortable being alone or not? I’m not going to post the whole essay here, because it’s worth a read by itself. But this paragraph really stood out:
“Almost anything else that controls our life in an unhealthy way finds its root in our realization that we dread the nothingness of nothing. We can’t imagine just being rather than doing. And therefore, we look for entertainment, we seek company, and if those fail, we chase even higher highs.”
Psychologists call this the hedonistic treadmill; this constant seeking of entertainment and highs. Many of us are on it without realizing it. Even me.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few years, and nothing rings truer. People will do almost anything to avoid being alone, or feeling alone. Hiding from the growing terror of nothing to think about is as universal as being human.
Learn about yourself in solitude
In that emptiness is everything we’ve been running from. Beyond it is the peace most of us are seeking. One can’t be faced without the other, and many don’t have the courage to look at both, along with everything else we face in our daily lives.
Instead, we turn to the noise of the television, the distractions of social media, the highs of whatever makes us forget how to feel. We’ve gotten quite good at avoiding ourselves. While that is the case, we can never see clearly, or move forward. It’s worth a little time facing the awkward silence to see what’s beyond it.
“Without knowing ourselves, it’s almost impossible to find a healthy way to interact with the world around us,” Rana says.
“Without taking time to figure it out, we don’t have a foundation to built the rest of our lives on.
Being alone and connecting inwardly is a skill nobody ever teaches us. That’s ironic because it’s more important than most of the ones they do.
Solitude may not be the solution to everything, but it certainly is a start.”