People found it as hard to be alone with their own thoughts two millennia ago as they do now. Otherwise, Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations would not have felt the need to advise them to do it. He even suggested a topic for those thoughts: “Constantly contemplate the whole of time and the whole of substance, and consider that all individual things as to substance are a grain of a fig, and as to time, the turning of a gimlet.” Contemplations about how small and brief our existence is in the grand scheme of things are precisely the thoughts that folks typically try to avoid. They come most easily in moments of solitude, but Marcus tells us we can create our own solitude if need be, “for it is in your power to retire into yourself whenever you choose.”
It is within our power, but it is seldom our choice. We seek out distractions instead, never mind the persistent disdain of philosophers for them. Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662): “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” Some misfortunes really come from elsewhere, I think, but it is true that an inability to sit quietly is a bad sign; if you can’t be happy alone, your happiness with others is bound to be fragile. I’ll add one more Frenchman’s snarky but sound observation. Jean-Paul Sartre: “If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company.”
Just how much do most of us want to avoid undisturbed contemplation? According to research headed by Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia, a lot. Many of us actually prefer physical pain. He and his collaborators asked subjects to sit alone in a room for 6 to 15 minutes — no magazines, no crossword puzzles, no smart phone, no artificial distractions of any kind. The majority hated it. The researchers then added a wrinkle. Subjects again were asked to sit alone for 15 minutes, but they had the option of pressing a button that would deliver a painful electric shock. One fourth of the women and two thirds of the men deliberately shocked themselves – in one case 190 times – just for the diversion.
Why is solitary quietude so unpleasant for so many? Wilson doesn’t claim to know but offers the “scanner hypothesis” as a possibility: if our ancestors on the savanna needed constantly to scan outward for predators as a matter of survival, we might have evolved a hardwired prejudice against extended introspection. Freud was more inclined to credit a person’s internal conflicts for discomfort with his or her own thoughts. Ernest Becker (Denial of Death) credited death anxiety, i.e. unwelcome thoughts about mortality. Whatever the reason, outside of Wilson’s lab it is easier than ever to distract ourselves, so we do just that. For many of us, a single task is not distraction enough, so we tap into electronic media. Joggers channel music from their iPods into their miniature earphones. Pedestrians (and, unfortunately, many drivers) text on their phones. Accustomed to a constant stream of data, Millennials left to themselves in a room are likely to have several distractions running simultaneously: TV, iPod, laptop, Kindle, smart phone, and more.
I’ve no objection to electronic diversions per se. I certainly employ them – usually just one at a time, but that’s only because I’m not a good multitasker. Yet, there is something to be said for putting all of that aside occasionally. Not just philosophers but people in general really know this, even if we resist doing it. That is why since ancient times there have been special retreats for the purpose of enforcing solitude upon ourselves. As Marcus reminds us, however, we don’t need a special place. Like Becker, Marcus Aurelius thought and wrote a lot about mortality. Unlike Becker, he seemed at peace with it, which is good since he died at age 58 (probably from smallpox) while with the troops near the German frontier. He even joked about it: “There is no man so fortunate that there shall not be by him when he is dying some who are pleased with what is going to happen.” He said not to concern oneself about it.
It’s pretty sound advice. If we take it and the rest of Marcus’ advice to heart and then happen to find ourselves in Timothy Wilson’s lab, perhaps we’ll leave that button alone – or at least press it fewer than 190 times.
Nonetheless, this button I’d push 191 times