solitude and sanity

I wanted to write this on a Monday afternoon back in February, when I found myself alone and unpreoccupied in San Diego. I was visiting my brother and the girl to whom he has since proposed, who were at work that day. It was freezing in the morning and, apart from driving Evan to work, I stayed in bed until about noon to give the house time to warm up. It was still unseasonably cold there in southern California; I had expected it to be closer to 70 F than 45 F.

After writing a few emails, I dived headfirst into Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, starting from about halfway in and chugging through to the end over a period of some four hours or so. The Prof has a very convincing, coherent view on income inequality, why it’s a bad thing and how it came about in the US; more on that later.

I took a walk through the neighborhood around sunset. In recent years I’ve grown uneasy about the environmental unsustainability and self-absorbed consumerist lifestyle stereotypically associated with American suburbs, and none seemed a more perfect picture of this than the suburbs of San Diego, with their perfectly manicured lawns and spotless sidewalks. But I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, myself, and something about my surroundings that evening still felt like home, even in that neighborhood where the houses were much bigger and perhaps more conspicuous than the one I grew up in. I passed a group of kids on the street playing ball in the driveway, much as my brother and I might once have done with our friends. Many tight things in my chest and shoulders started to unravel.

That same sort of tight feeling has accumulated again by now, and last night I blew off finishing my very-nearly-due US taxes to read scattered bits of Susan Neiman’s Moral Clarity. This is how I know something’s out of joint. If I simply couldn’t hold my attention together, allowing it to succumb to the lure of Facebook, webcomics, or even The New York Times Opinions section online, that would be one thing — and I do still struggle to wrest precious attention from the Internet, so much so that as I sat here typing I began by complaining about how far behind I felt in my work. But the mere fact that I’m procrastinating isn’t as interesting to me here as the way in which I’m choosing to do so. I miss having long afternoons to read about serious thoughts and let them sink in, and the disaffected way I flipped from one chapter of Neiman’s book to the next reflected the fracturing of my attention. Even when unplugged, it’s hard to know what the most important thing in the moment is, and an endless litany of things I should be doing splashes constantly into the center of my attention. One probably needs at least a weekend by the clock of unperturbed sitting or walking with no words, preferably a week, for things to die away and some semblance of sanity to return.

I rarely felt like this in high school or even at university, despite having a large number of things I needed to do. That may be partly because my time and expectations were managed for me, with clear targets for success, and the task of managing them for myself remains an ongoing challenge. Yet I can’t help but think that it’s also partly because attention has become much more of a commodity, to be traded in small units, than it ever was before. I might simply goof off and take a walk, but that was a very different kind of activity from clicking on pictures of baby hedgehogs.

A couple of articles by William Deresiewicz, a former English lecturer at a university I used to work at myself once, capture this sense well: “The End Of Solitude” and “Solitude and Leadership. The author contends that you need some time to yourself not just to feel human and whole, but to have those original ideas that breathe life into the public square (such as it is these days). If it’s worth thinking, it’s probably worth thinking slowly.

The endless stream of distraction even infects our prose. A couple of weeks ago I took Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on a plane to read. It was unlikely plane reading, certainly not an immersive novel, but it gave me pause to think about how I phrased things. I couldn’t argue with any of the rules of usage and good style I found there; all seemed like good, natural advice. Re-reading some of my older entries, though, especially the ones about technical subjects, made me wince. I break these rules all the time, not for not knowing them, but for not having enough time to really implement those suggestions into a finely crafted piece of work. The rules I learned there have affected my editing of this post substantially, though they’re a long way from being second nature. Along similar lines, George Orwell noted in his own essay, “Politics and the English Language”, how laziness in composition obscured meaning. Obscurity can be insidious as well as lazy, though, so it’s up to us to take our language and our meaning back. That, in turn, will require enough time and effort to reflect meaningfully on what we want to say.

All of which is to say, although tea can be pleasant and helpful, peace and quiet alone with one’s thoughts are also essential.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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