That, it turns out, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it frees us from the grip of necessity. We’re able to make choices about how we spend our time. On the other hand, we can, and frequently do, fall into a daily rhythm that ill suits us or runs counter to our best interests. We fill our days with activities that provide fleeting pleasures or momentary conveniences but that leave us feeling anxious or unfulfilled.
When you look to the animal kingdom, most activity is centered around the objective of survival and it is dictated by environmental circumstances. If you are a diurnal creature, you sleep at night when it’s dark and you’re active during the day when it’s light out. If you’re a migratory bird, you might fly south in the winter and north in the summer. You don’t really get to choose to do this, because it’s just something you have to do.
Modern humans are quite different in that we can exert a much greater level of control over our environments. Even though we’re technically diurnal by nature, I can work after dark by turning the lights on. Even when it gets cold here in the winter and the trees go bare, I can choose to stay by turning up the heat and buying my food from the grocery store. I can choose. And, as we’ve heard so many times before, with great power comes great responsibility.
The excerpt at the top, written by Nicholas Carr, is taken from the foreword to Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World by Michael Harris. It serves as a simple reminder that, unlike so many of our counterparts in the animal kingdom, we have the power of choice. And many of us squander that power by chasing instant gratification rather than working toward something greater.
We indulge in fast food, because it’s cheap and convenient, even though we know it’s hardly ideal for our health. We indulge in fast fashion and fast entertainment for much the same reasons. And then we wonder why we feel so empty inside. When all of our basic survival needs are met, we face the privilege of existential angst. And it is indeed a privilege denied to many.
With smartphone in hand, connectivity is continuous. We’re in a crowd even when we’re by ourselves. The chatter never ends; the rhythm never slows. Nonstop networking may feel invigorating, but, as Harris makes clear, we sacrifice much when we’re never alone. Solitude is refreshing. It strengthens memory, sharpens awareness, and spurs creativity. It makes us calmer, more attentive, clearer headed. Most important of all, it relieves the pressure of conformity.
One of my guiding words for 2018 is “intent.” In the accompanying vlog, I talked about how I find myself doing so many things out of reflex. I’ll reach for my phone, fire up the Instagram app, and check my list of likes and comments, all without actively thinking about any of that. Why? I feel compelled to fill any and every gap with something, because nothing makes me anxious.
So, I instinctively reach out for that stimulation, for that engagement, because the crowd is only a couple of screen taps away. That needs to change. In a world that is increasingly always connected, we all need to learn how to disconnect and be comfortable in the quiet. Many of us avoid the quiet, even when we are physically alone, because true solitude forces us to be alone with our thoughts. With our deepest, darkest thoughts. And that can be positively terrifying.
But it is also in these moments of solitude that we can truly explore who we really are and who we really want to be.
Image credit: Sandy Fleischmann on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)