The Joy of Quiet By PICO IYER Published: December 29, 2011
ABOUT a year ago, I flew to Singapore to join the writer Malcolm Gladwell, the fashion designer Marc Ecko and the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister in addressing a group of advertising people on “Marketing to the Child of Tomorrow.” Soon after I arrived, the chief executive of the agency that had invited us took me aside. What he was most interested in, he began — I braced myself for mention of some next-generation stealth campaign — was stillness.
Around the same time, I noticed that those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in “black-hole resorts,” which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.
Has it really come to this?
In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.
Internet rescue camps in South Korea and China try to save kids addicted to the screen.
The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
When telegraphs and trains brought in the idea that convenience was more important than content — and speedier means could make up for unimproved ends — Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest,” but by also acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.
We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.
So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.
MAYBE that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age. Two journalist friends of mine observe an “Internet sabbath” every week, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation. Finding myself at breakfast with a group of lawyers in Oxford four months ago, I noticed that all their talk was of sailing — or riding or bridge: anything that would allow them to get out of radio contact for a few hours.
Other friends try to go on long walks every Sunday, or to “forget” their cellphones at home. A series of tests in recent years has shown, Mr. Carr points out, that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.” More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.
In my own case, I turn to eccentric and often extreme measures to try to keep my sanity and ensure that I have time to do nothing at all (which is the only time when I can see what I should be doing the rest of the time). I’ve yet to use a cellphone and I’ve never Tweeted or entered Facebook. I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.
None of this is a matter of principle or asceticism; it’s just pure selfishness. Nothing makes me feel better — calmer, clearer and happier — than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
PLEASE READ MORE: