September 6, 2013

The poorer silence now

More than a century ago, William Henry Davies, in his poem, Leisure rued the fact that there was "no time to stand and stare".
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Today, in similar vein, one could rue the absence of silence in our world. A recent article in the New York Time talked about NYC's  newest (and rarest) luxury item: silence.
“We’re at the breaking point"...  Silence has become a luxury in New York that only a scant few can truly afford, and cultural, technological and economic changes in recent years have added to the din everyone else must endure, creating not just one culprit, but many. 

And it is not merely a constant chatter of sounds that assaults our brains. Reflection and contemplation has also been sidelined thanks to the constant flood of information coming at us from all sides, especially the internet. We need to make a conscious attempt to tune off for some time at least and I for one suffer due to the inability of tuning off the internet. (And I don't even have a smart phone, which adds a whole new level of being continuously connected. The very annoying behavior of many people of continuously looking at their phones every few seconds is something all of us have experienced in the last few years. Let me distract you from this post by directing you to this video making the rounds just this week that cleverly highlights the ridiculousness of our lives. We have become dumb users of smart phones!)

Of course, it is not that we are naive users of these tools of modern life. There have been many studies and reports [1, 2, 3, 4 (video by Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains"), 5, 6, ...] about the negative impacts of digital distraction. Of course, as psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggested it's time to start treating the internet the same way you would a diet:
[W]e need to find ways to make [the internet] as nourishing as possible, as we try to do with our diets, and not just turn to what's easiest. Is your Twitter or Facebook nourishing or crushing your soul?
but like all bad habits and addictions, it is easier said than done. In fact, it has now been recognized as a systematic deficiency called an attention deficit trait, or ADT. "It isn't an illness; it's purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live," and is no doubt worsened by the digital lives we all live.

For anyone who hopes to be a writer, the perils of being distracted by the internet have been highlighted by many. There's a quotation attributed to the person who said a lot of things ("Anonymous") that I keep running into on the internet (ironic, huh!) about how the internet is the bane of any writer: "Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the internet." (The author Jonathan Franzen has said something similar but so have many other authors. Best to leave it attributed to Mr./Ms. Anonymous.) But, this is not something new. While probably not talking specifically about the internet, Philip Roth had this to say:
"Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing."

Anyway, we all know this but sometimes find it hard to break a habit. For now, I'll leave you with a poem about silence, reproduced here in its entirety.

by Billy Collins
There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.

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