As a society, we’ve lost the art of quiet reflection

Let’s admit it: We’re being driven to distraction. Perhaps more accurately, we are driven by distraction.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote that “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” It makes me wonder if Pascal had a smart phone, a high-speed internet connection, and a big-screen flat TV — for those are major distractions in today’s world. He also once said that all of humanity’s problems come from our inability to sit quietly in a room, alone.

Author Nicholas Carr, in his book “The Shallows,” notes that the average American spends at least eight hours a day in front of a screen, in part because the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009, and the hours spent in front of a TV screen is increasing as well. Studies show that the average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages per day, although the record, according to the Dec. 29, 2011 New York Times column, “The Joy of Quiet,” is held by a girl in Sacramento who somehow managed to send and receive 10,000 texts every day for a month. Driven by distraction, indeed.

Frankly, this worries me. As an only child, growing up near a rural area of Pennsylvania, I spent hours wandering the stubby fields or hiking in the woods. I can remember lying on my back watching fluffy clouds morph into dogs and dragons, whiling the time away in the long, empty expanses of summer. It fed the imagination. There was time to let the mind wander and to make up stories that took you to faraway lands and imagined adventures.

I wonder if our kids have many of those moments today. I wonder whether we “connected” adults have lost the ability to “sit quietly in a room, alone.”

Perhaps the folks in China and Korea have come upon something helpful. They have “internet rescue camps” to treat kids addicted to the screen. There are now resorts where you pay extra for the privilege of having no TV and no Internet connection. At one, you are forbidden to wear a watch. No distractions. Vacation — literally, an empty space.

My daughter was a TV news reporter for nine years after college. She’s now a middle school social studies teacher. She left reporting because of the increasing emphasis on “breaking news.” It seems that we are more likely to pay attention to our distractions when they come lightning fast, in sound bites. There was little time for the in-depth story, to linger on one subject long enough for deeper understanding.

We are driven by distraction.

During a recent week of “staycation,” I spent the time cleaning the garage —getting rid of years of “stuff,” culling down to what we really need and use, simplifying life. It felt so good! Now I actually want people to see the garage we had always hidden.

I wonder if we don’t need to do a little housecleaning of our distractions. Maybe take an “internet Sabbath” once a week, or limit the hours of constant TV.

Why not try it? Go lie in a field, watch a cloud, and make up a story. Or sit in a quiet room. It’ll do you good.


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