Happy and quiet

Monday 2 January 2012

Happy New Year everyone, I hope your 2011 was good, and that 2012 will be even better. This year I hear people talking about "intentions" rather than "resolutions," is that a reflection of reality, or an early cop-out so that failure doesn't feel like "failure"?

When I think about the year past and the year ahead, my "intention" is to spend my time more mindfully. That doesn't dictate how I will spend it, or even that I should spend it purposefully, but that I should decide how to spend it, rather than falling into habits and ruts.

In Pico Iyer's relevant and recent widely-circulated piece, The Joy of Quiet, he notes our "progress:"

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.

Luckily, the bulk of the essay is not on this same, "things are so different now" theme. In fact, he quotes Blaise Pascal:

Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.

Later, he calls on Thoreau:

We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating.

Here's the full Thoreau paragraph:

As with our colleges, so with a hundred "modern improvements"; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey. I doubt if Flying Childers [an English racehorse] ever carried a peck of corn to mill.

So which is it? Are we in a bad state that has developed in the last generation, or are we merely in the same predicament as Pascal and Thoreau? I think it's easy for people to lament their situation and think their condition is a recent malady. Even Thoreau complains of "modern improvements," but if Thoreau complained in 1854, and Pascal in 1658, then how can we honestly blame 21st-century developments for our situation?

People are omnivores, and along with meat and vegetables, we consume information, attention and distraction, craving as much as we can get. Too much food will make us fat, too much distraction will make us, well, distracted. It's true now, and it was true in Thoreau's time.

The new technologies certainly contribute to the problem, but they didn't create it. Thoreau's quip about the "broad, flapping American ear" could have been written about tabloids, TV, and Twitter, but it wasn't. Iyer's solution is quiet, a respite from connection, but I think we can also use the tools we have in better ways.

I liked Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's conclusion:

Connectivity and silence, collaboration and contemplation, sociability and solitude, are not opposites, and we shouldn't think that we should choose between one and the other. Rather, they're like food and water, or parents and children. Each is essential; they're different but not mutually exclusive. The great challenge is to find places for them all, and to know how to use them.

So, along with the usual resolutions to eat more healthfully, here's to spending time more mindfully.

» 5 reactions


CH 4:39 PM on 2 Jan 2012

Can you explain Thoreau's paragraph, I'm not sure I understand all of it...

Ned Batchelder 4:47 PM on 2 Jan 2012

@CH: Hmm, not sure how to explain it other than, "Just because something is new and shiny doesn't mean it's better." Thoreau's writing style is more elaborate and flowery than we are used to, so it can be hard to see the gist through all the verbiage.

CH 5:11 PM on 2 Jan 2012

I mean specific things like "the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey"

Is he saying Evangelists carry the more important messages? What does is the relevance of locusts and wild honey?

Ned Batchelder 5:18 PM on 2 Jan 2012

@CH: Evangelists carry the word of God, and John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey (Google told me so..)

Aron Griffis 9:08 AM on 3 Jan 2012

Great thoughts Ned! I think your "spending time more mindfully" is akin to "living deliberately," a term given to my high school class by one of our teachers. He had a dramatic effect on us, as he lived out his philosophy of establishing goals then filtering his activities to those that contributed to his goals. Living deliberately might be more driven than spending time mindfully, but maybe that depends on one's goals.

I think that for me, spending time mindfully might be a matter of recognizing when I'm distracted and refocusing my attention, whether that's while I'm coding or conversing. I let my attention wander too easily, then I fritter away the time on things that aren't as rewarding as what I had intended to do. In 2012 I'd like to change that ratio a bit.

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