Back in the 1600’s, distinguished French inventor and physicist Blaise Pascal wrote “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
As some of you may know, I moved to the UK from South Africa during the early part of 2019. Life is of course different here, most notably in the realm of commuting. I’ve written a little about this here, but as time has gone on my increase in people watching has led to one or two interesting, and disturbing observations.
The quote from Pascal has always resonated with me, and I’ve sensed it to be true, but nothing has reaffirmed this more than navigating the London transport system and walking the streets of the city.
Being reasonably observant, what struck me quite early on in my time in London was the sheer scale of mindless distraction that people require. What do I mean by this? One can’t help but notice the people around you and what they’re doing. And what they’re doing is everything they can to distract themselves. I mean, I could excuse a lot of this if they were doing things to grow themselves like reading intelligent books, but this is rarely the case. No, they’re on their phones scrolling. They’re playing mindless Tetris-type phone games. They’re watching some TV programme. They have earphones stuck in their ears with strains of loud beats audible to you next to them. Or they’re having long, mindless conversations. The types where you start wondering whether there is in fact anyone on the other end of the line.
I get the distinct impression that these people don’t ever switch off the constant buzz of distraction occupying their time and minds. It’s a constant stream of phone calls, social media, Netflix and more. From the tube station it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk home for me through quiet streets. I always embrace this as a great chance to just gather my thoughts and enjoy the quiet walk, taking in the birdsong and reflecting on the day and life in general. Yet I’ll walk past countless people walking home with earphones in, engaged in an ongoing dialogue. At other times I’ll continually observe people jogging or gyming with headphones on, seemingly incapable of doing it with their own minds as company. Yes, everyone is different, and maybe I’m sounding overly critical. But I can’t help but think what I observe are symptoms of a societal problem, and makes me think that Pascal was spot on in how to solve humanity’s problems.
Of course, I’m guilty of some of these behaviours. The ride on the tube is long. It gets boring. You need distraction sometimes. I do a lot of this. I read, I scroll social media. Yet it seems to me that for many people, their entire lives are a distraction. Or more accurately, their entire sense of self is drowned in a sea of over stimulus. Watching all of this I get the distinct feeling that people are unable to spend time in their own minds, so to speak.
This reminds me of something I’ve observed with many directors and managers I’ve worked under down the years in the corporate world. People who would literally run from meeting to meeting for an entire day, day after day, complaining of busyness whenever you’d speak to them. When I’ve observed this in the past I’ve always thought these business managers and leaders would have done well to find an hour of alone time every day to close their office door and basically do nothing other than sit, think and reflect on the business.
I’m an introvert who doesn’t need that much conversation in daily life. Certainly not of the mundane type. So I recognise that most people need to talk more than I do. Yet I can’t help but watch people talk endlessly on a tube ride for 20 minutes at a time . . . about nothing in particular. I guess some things are hard to understand for people like me. I can’t help but wonder whether they’re not maybe adding unnecessary clutter into their minds, and lives. These people are obviously doing whatever works for them, but when I look at this I see a generation that needs constant external stimulation. Who can never be alone. Who can never exist without mindless entertainment. Who can never, god forbid, sit quietly in a room alone. We’ve created a society of individuals in touch with everything and everyone, but out of touch with their own selves.
Why is this? This constant need to be entertained – is it a form of papering over the cracks? A refusal of sorts to look below the surface? Are people afraid of their true selves? Perhaps not afraid. Maybe it’s more a sense of unease with true self-reflection and self-observation. Or is it simply a case of them not understanding mindfulness?
Sitting quietly in a room for a while as a habit is incredibly good advice. I look at the world and sometimes despair at the lack of self-reflection and self-awareness. I see a society so sure about its convictions. So reluctant to question beliefs and opinions. So reluctant to peel the layers off the ‘self’.
Sitting quietly in a room does many positive things, for starters:
- It allows you to observe your thoughts, and thinking patterns
- It gives you a chance to reflect on your own thoughts, behaviour, and ideas
- It allows you to question yourself, your biases and opinions
- It allows you to just calm down and be
Even if it’s not full on meditation, a practise of quiet time alone with no stimuli can only be good thing in the long term, and from observation, is an incredibly rare thing. We could all benefit from it.
Mindfulness and self-exploration are concepts handed down through millennia. Pascal’s point is just another take on this, but a particularly relevant one. Advice from the 1600’s more relevant than ever.