Soren Hansen | Monday, March 5, 2018
The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I’m not sure if he’s right about all of humanity’s problems, but I think his words could help us here at Notre Dame. From the moment we wake up with jarring alarms to our final scrolls on social media before we fall asleep (I must admit to doing both), we are surrounded by noise — music, alarms, chatter, distractions.
Pascal, in his great wisdom, also observed that “distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”
I’ve noticed recently exactly how hard it is to find silence on this campus. From the jazz-ified covers of Sam Smith classics that play non-stop in the new Duncan Student Center to the pop hits that stream out of Waddicks into the halls of O’Shag, music is a constant. I’m guilty of sitting down, plugging in headphones and filling my brain with layers upon layers of distraction; we put on our background music, flip endlessly between tabs, scroll through headlines and do our school work all at the same time.
Though I’ve been known for having unpopular opinions, I want to make something clear, I’m not saying music or other types of brain clutter are inherently evil. I love music and it brings me inexplicable joy to listen to and play. But there is a problem when we can never press pause, when we become so accustomed to sound and simple distractions that we don’t remember what silence is or why it is desirable.
So why don’t we search for silence?
I think we are afraid of the void because we are unused to it; because we are an energetic and driven generation, silence makes us feel idle, barren, uneasy and afraid. We fill every moment with something so we can avoid encountering, as Pascal put it, our “miseries.”
Now that seems a little dramatic to me, but he’s probably right — we don’t like to face our real problems. Herman Melville praised the mental benefits of creativity and depth of thought that comes with taking a break; “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”
We need to save our words for what’s important, and not just say everything that can be said. The true value of silence is that it brings meaning back to the noise. Can any of us actually be apart from our phones for more than a few hours? More than a few minutes? Can we stand a whole day without music? Can we imagine a world without wifi or the ability to constantly connect with all of our friends? Oh, what a din!
If our brains and ears are filled with noise, don’t we become deaf to meaningful conversation or the transcendent beauty of music? We’re on our way to losing the ability to be in one place, to be moved by a song, to be absorbed by one book or conversation. We can only value these things, get joy from these things and deeply understand these things when we step back and see them from a distance.
In his “Ascent to Truth,” Thomas Merton noted that “man was made for the highest activity, which is, in fact, his rest. That activity, which is contemplation, is immanent and it transcends the level of sense and of discourse. Man’s guilty sense of his incapacity for this one deep activity which is the reason for his very existence, is precisely what drives him to seek oblivion in exterior motion and desire … He has but to remain busy with trifles.”
Constant background noise can actually harm us, too. Not only do intellectual tasks like reading and writing suffer when listening to music, but we can become so accustomed to music that we take its beauty and impact for granted.
Silence is also an important and sometimes forgotten part of conversation. The ease of texting and messaging has left us uncomfortable with gaps or pauses in our human interactions, and this can lead us to fill up our conversations with unimportant chatter. If we appreciate silence, an external indication of deeper thought or consideration, we appreciate the other person in a greater way. Listening requires silence, and therefore empathy does as well. It takes effort, real effort (especially for talkative people like me) to rest in silence both in conversation and in company. A mark of true friendship is the ability to be present with someone without needing to speak, being comfortable in the silence.
In the end, the best argument for pressing pause is that we need time to reflect and meditate on ourselves and what’s around us. We need time to declutter and unplug. We need to notice the wind in the trees and the return of the birds in the spring.
It may be tough, but we need to unplug.
So let’s take out our headphones, step outside and sit alone with our thoughts to face the unnerving void — we might just solve some of our problems after all.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.