Monday, September 1, 2014

On Alone Time

Three articles caught my attention, two juxtaposed on a page of the Globe and Mail Saturday, and one forwarded along on Kinsella’s blog. Doug Saunders wrote about the blur between work and leisure, Jacob Berkowitz about solo camping, and Michael Finkel about a man who lived alone in the woods for almost 30 years.

The articles spoke to me because I’m terrified of boredom. I finally finished the last project I have for my house – a waterfall and total backyard garden and studio – and already I’m a little anxious about what’s next. Now there’s just regular maintenance to do, which is tedious and takes a lot more effort to get to. I’m always more motivated to clean when the place is a disaster than when it just needs some tidying, so I tend to leave things go. A big mess is more satisfying, and I love a good project. I’ve got lots of energy that could be used for good somewhere, but, despite my offers to build people’s decks or sheds or paint rooms, I can’t seem to make that happen. There’s always Habitat for Humanity. That’ll be my plan come June. But it’s curious how much it weighs on me.

Saunders discusses the shift in our time in just the last hundred years to include spare time and the corresponding rise of boredom. “Historians have searched centuries of literature and found that being bored was not something anyone described until the Industrial Revolution came along.” But, now that we’re getting used to leisure time, things are shifting again as wired-in jobs become 24/7. Maybe it’s just as well.  Dare I say, maybe too much leisure time is a problem.

Berkowitz shares a study done in which people are left alone in a room for 15 minutes with nothing – no cell phones even – nothing but a device they could use to shock themselves. Almost half of the people shocked themselves rather than do nothing. Doing nothing is hard.

And getting somewhere alone now can take substantial effort.

We recently sold a piece of land up north – a beautiful property that I loved, but that was - I discovered - just too remote. We couldn’t go places or see people there. I thought I’d love the solitude, but, after just a few days, it made me antsy. I can only stare at the lake for so long before I need a change of scenery.

That brings me to the hermit in the woods who is my age and lived completely alone for decades, until he got caught stealing food. Now he’s dwindling in jail. He spoke of an intense need for solitude, but he could spend months (months!) watching a mushroom grow on a tree:
“Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”
Boredom is likely a part of the reason people drink and do drugs and fight and hook up randomly. Just something – anything – is better than a void. Is it the case that, since this is a new phenomenon we just haven’t adjusted yet (or well), or is it the case that it’s human nature to find solitary time difficult? Unlike cats, who can stare out a window for days, people must be fed more significant stimuli. There are always people – gurus, monks, masters of their domains – who are able to sit doing nothing, but maybe that’s the exception to be admired from afar rather than emulated.

So my question is, is a love of stillness something to work towards, or something deviant to shun. Or is it just a case of ‘to each their own’?  It bothers me not being able to do something as simple as sitting still, and instead feeling tossed about by the need for constant activity. When I felt myself needing coffee to manage the morning, I quit it cold turkey. It’s harder to just sit.

According to Carr’s book, technology could be a factor in re-wiring our brains to need increasing stimuli. We’re losing our ability to be content. Now we need to be entertained - not just a few times a year, but constantly.  I can be writing, mid-sentence, and find myself checking facebook to cope with the space it takes me to choose a better word. Quiet thought is…. scary? or … painful? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely unwanted. And some students are loathe to put away their phones for the duration of a lesson – even if the lesson is interactive. A moment’s break in the action needs to be filled.

My little studio doesn’t pick up the house wi-fi. At first it was upsetting, and I started googling repeaters to solve the problem, but, after reading Carr’s book, I think I’ll leave it like that. I think it’s not a problem, but a solution. I can write read and write and think out back, then come in to transfer to a blog whatever bits I think might be readable by someone else.  And maybe I'll develop a means to accept the quiet without the interwebs interfering.

But this has been a problem long before technology. Our time with ourselves is difficult. Curious.

3 comments:

  1. You need some place to paint? Why didn't you say so? I don't need a deck but a new woodshed would be greatly appreciated. How are you with windows and weeding?

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  2. I hate windows - thinking of paying someone to wash mine. But I love weeding - particularly if you're garden's a disaster. Funny how that works. Maybe I'd just rather my fingers coated in dirt than windex. I've already volunteers to garden for my next door neighbour, but I could probably squeeze you in!

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  3. Marie, I don't think it is a question of whether there is stimuli or not, it is more a question of where the stimuli come from. Jung talks a lot about personality types and makes a basic distinction between introverts and extroverts. An introvert gets her stimuli and energy internally; an extrovert depends on external stimuli and gets antsy when deprived of it for too long. Christopher Knight, the Maine hermit you referred to, could cope with, and indeed sought out, being alone because he didn't share the extrovert's need for external stimuli to the sane degree. And of course there are more extroverts than introverts out there. It's supposedly about a 30/70 split. Work to your strengths.

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