‘All man’s miseries,’ wrote the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, ‘derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.’ Silence can do sinister things to a human being. In fact the quietest room ever, at -9 decibels, drove anyone who attempted to stay inside mad in under a half-hour.
Even ‘normal’ quiet rooms, hovering at roughly 30 decibels, are enough to drive people bat-sh*t. The Art of Sitting Around is a skill most avoid. Yet, as comedian Louis C.K. recently remarked on Conan O’Brien, replacing that art with smart phones drives us a different kind of crazy.
As a young reporter in 1999 I asked George Carlin why he chose comedy as his preferred method of delivery, given his political inclinations. If you can make people laugh, he told me, they’ll listen to you. They let down their guards, let you inside. Once they’re listening, you can inform.
Louis C.K. is one of today’s great informers. His ‘Of Course, But Maybe’ skit began as a seemingly harmless jab at nut allergies before transforming into a piercing exposition of patriotism and painful survey of modern-day slave labor. It made you take a second look at the iPhone you’re tweeting the link of his video from, gave you pause the next time you sat on the toilet distracting yourself in cyberspace.
The Conan clip began with a diatribe against buying his children smart phones. Louis believes it stunts a child’s ability to build empathy: When you called a kid fat to his face, you see the results of your harmful words, which, hopefully, will prompt you to rethink making such statements. With texting, you drop a drone bomb without witnessing the consequences.
He quickly turned to the adult version of that child constantly—anxiously—checking his phone every two minutes. For us older children, our phones are taking away something equally important.
You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.
An unfortunate mantra spilled over from the Industrial Revolution concerns the devilry of idle hands. Yes, the sentiment has roots in Thessalonians, but it made a perfect bedfellow for bosses prodding worker bees and mothers wanting children out of her hair.
The idea of doing ‘nothing’ created an anxiety passed down in our cultural genetic code, easily translatable to cell phone gazers on subways, street corners and—amazingly—during acts like walking down stairs and driving a car. A study conducted earlier this year revealed that an incredible 20% of young adults have checked their phones while having sex.
While busyness need not be a bad thing, the inability to focus is. Multitasking is not the beacon of humanity we once claimed. It distracts us from transience, an important component in the ongoing process of being a human.
Underneath everything there’s that thing—that empty forever. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re all alone. Life is tremendously sad just by being in it.
Louis C.K.’s observations caused laughter, but a specific kind: the acknowledgement that yes, he’s right, that is how it begins and ends for all of us. Avoiding the fact harms us more than it does us good. Ernest Becker recognized that the denial of death caused the greatest psychoses our species suffers from. Citing the Greek myth of Narcissus, he wrote, ‘we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves.’
As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget.
Today there is no more potent contrivance than the mass distraction of cell phones. This is no anti-technological rant—all of our tools have purpose and can be used for good reason. The reasons we justify, however, need to be questioned. As an avoidance of silence, we’re never going to be able to reckon with loneliness. That’s a shame. So much is learned in the quiet space. The tragedy ensues, as Louis concluded, when
People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second.