One of the great challenges of the modern age is finding sufficient solitude.
By “modern age”, of course, I don’t mean the 1950s, which I guess took hold of that term a while back and didn’t let go. I mean now, a time I sometimes call “contemporary” as pretty much the only word that I can use to rigidly refer to this one. And by “solitude”, I don’t necessarily really even mean being alone, even though that’s what the word means. I mean a deeper, more peaceful quiet, the ability to be alone with one’s thoughts, even in the midst of a variety of other humans. What I mean to say, I suppose, is that it’s hard to be bored these days. Or at least find a place to be quiet.
Boredom and quiet are not typical byproducts of the current Western societies which pride themselves on their smartphone technology, infinite navigability, and instant gratification. Boredom and quiet are the obvious enemies, to be paved over with walls of distraction and sound at every opportunity. Listening to nothing is missing the opportunity to be listening to the latest hit single by your new favorite band. Not having anything to do is unthinkable on face, but if it can be imagined, is to be replaced by getting the updates on what millions of people you care about, whether you know them or not, are doing at this very moment. Lord knows they aren’t bored, and if they are, they are certainly feigning otherwise on a social media outlet of choice.
I’m not above this fray entirely, of course, though I adamantly swear by my decision to avoid smartphones and, given the way a recent NPR piece on their use sounded, would probably choose to give up cell-phones altogether if smartphones somehow became my only option. Even now, you may be reading this blog post on a smartphone and have come here via a link thereon that I posted to social media in the hopes that you would catch it right there, now, in real time. To which I can only offer my opposition to the whole circumstance as a defense, that the technology sometimes must be used as its only effective undoing, perhaps. After all, Republicans still seek government office to undermine the power of government. One would imagine that an anti-literacy campaign might still use written words to spread the message of their initial organization. Or that those who seek to undermine the role of money must still spend it until then.
But I often find myself wishing I could be more bored than I am, and certainly in an environment more quiet. It’s not that I long for the 8-hour wait at Harry Potter World, exactly – while I found that experience instructive, it was well more than too much of a good thing to regularly seek. But I basically have found that NPR’s conclusions about the benefits of boredom come true. As I noted in June 2013, “Boredom is essential to the writing process… You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative.” As the piece describes, the mind will only be pushed to real creativity, really interesting stuff, if it has to amuse itself beyond the readily available and accessible amusements. If there is sufficient distraction, then why rise above it? If there is no distraction, we will create it, and it may be the most interesting idea, concept, or whimsy yet.
I think this is why I have done some of my best thinking, from creative development to more concrete problem-solving, in the shower. There is something to be said for being in a place that’s comfortable and for the soothing de-stressing nature of warm water. But most of it is just that this is one of the most rote and dull processes of the day, while also managing to not be distractingly unpleasant. Many things can be extra-distracting even if boring and thus undermine the value that boredom can offer, much like the extra bloodflow of a migraine loses any beneficial effects by triggering painful nerves with the swollen veins: the pain overrides the added blood, neutralizing and even negating it. But the shower is not particularly chore-like or unpleasant, thus creating that perfect blend of boredom and thoughtlessness that creates real, interesting thoughts.
The other ingredient necessary for this kind of insight, at least for me, is silence. Or at least the absence of specific, comprehensible noise, which is actually not the same thing at all. There are many dins that create the functional equivalent of silence in terms of lacking any discernible sound that creates a linguistic or musical experience that distracts the mind from wandering, be it into a book, a piece of writing, or mere reverie toward creative groundwork. A coffee shop may offer a sufficient balance of neighboring conversations such that they create an overall hubbub that sounds more like white noise than like language and this is nearly as good as real quiet. A train station’s crowded echoes, at least in a really authentic glorious station (think Philadelphia’s 30th Street, LA’s Union, NY’s Grand Central, that kind of thing) will offer the same effect. But outside these rare exceptional circumstances, and perhaps libraries, this silence or mix of noise that cancels to simulate it is confoundingly hard to come by.
Music is a huge culprit. There are almost no public buildings that fail to play some kind of music and, increasingly, it is both loud and has words. A remarkable number of otherwise abandoned coffee shops are inhospitable to reading and writing for their unending chorus of worded music which competes for and, for me, overrides any attention being offered to rival words. There are many decent reasons for playing music in such venues, I suppose, like making the day go faster for the employees or offering patrons an environment that reminds them of high school or their hipster friend, but it seems like someone could make a fortune by being “the quiet coffee shop” as a place conducive both to quiet conversation and the reading and writing that people, in one era, most closely associated with the establishments.
Indeed, even bookstores, such as they still exist, are increasingly being invaded by music. To say nothing of restaurants, cafes, and other establishments even less traditionally associated with quiet than coffee shops and bookstores. Libraries remain a rare bastion of silence, though their inhospitability to other things, like food and drink, makes them limited candidates for long reading, writing, and/or thinking sessions. I guess I must be an outlier in my wishes, since everyone seems to be adopting music as a universal soundtrack to indoor existence, but is it possible that we’re just not thinking that deeply about this invasion? Or is no one else so impacted as I am?
After all, most of my generation has supposedly grown up doing homework with the television and radio (or other music device) on simultaneously and competing for attention. I have witnessed peers be able to hold conversations or focus on work of various kinds while so much audible and discernible dialogue distracts me to the point of, well, distraction. So perhaps I’m just a particularly bad auditory multi-tasker, something akin to my generally slow reading (at least for an avid reader), someone for whom words are such a centerpiece that there can only be one viable set of them at a time. But, like the NPR piece on boredom suggests, maybe it’s not that I’m the only one who wants silence. Maybe no one is really thinking about the loss of silence as something we should be guarding against in the first place.
The only place where I can really see (or hear of, more accurately for a couple reasons) this battle being fought is in transportation, where the much-discussed Quiet Car has been created on various Amtrak routes and imitated by other train lines, at least in the northeast. This is a key feature of many trains that aims for the purest form of silence, since, after all, it’s pretty hard to enforce the mixed hubbub that would result from just the right number of conversations. The main target of the Quiet Car seems to be cell-phone conversations, but loud music is surely also shunted away from this purported ambassador of peace. No wonder I often deeply miss my train commute in the Bay Area on BART or even excitedly anticipate a possible streetcar commute in my newest city. While I spent and would spend most of that time reading, it’s at least a refuge from the unending assault of music and other noise on my concentration.
It is hard to read that above sentence without feeling like a bit of a curmudgeon. There is a bit of “get off my lawn” about calling for silence in any venue, perhaps more so if I irritably claim it is “for your own good”. And yet I fear for a generation raised without silence at all, where quiet and its cousin boredom are stamped out like the last of a nasty virus whose loss no one will mourn. Yes, I suppose, we can always create these things in our own homes, filling it with as much noise or as little as we wish. But I think there is something about the collective environments and surprises of the realms outside the home that make silence and even boredom there far more salient than that cultivated in the house.
At least in New Orleans, there is no shortage of such places outdoors. The cemeteries with their various decaying dead keeping watch above ground, the duck-strewn parks of trees and green, the resting neighborhoods with their tales of history, water, success, and woe. Even the ghosts in these places sometimes respect the silence, content to haunt one’s thoughts peacefully, despite stirring the mind within.
Now if only I can convince some of the coffee shops to follow suit.