When a friend forwarded me Pico Iyer’s recent New York Times essay “The Joy of Quiet,” I was squashed in the back of a Maruti shuttle van on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass of Kolkata, a congested piece of roadway that seemed to bypass little. The honking din of traffic around me was deafening. The construction happening on the bypass added its grating groan to the general bedlam. The Maruti rattled and creaked, the FM radio non-stop hits swelling and garbling with each bump on the road. Every single person in the shuttle was shouting into their cell phone. I wanted them all to stop, take a deep breath and read what Iyer had to say.
Nothing makes me feel better—calmer, clearer and happier—than being in one place, absorbed in a book, a conversation, a piece of music. It’s actually something deeper than mere happiness: it’s joy, which the monk David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”
That’s so true. We live in a world these days where happiness is really about happen-iness. Ask not for whom the Blackberry pings, it pings for thee. Unless something is happening, we are restless, sure that time is passing us by. We need that distraction of the Facebook status update, the relentless scroll of the headlines ticker on the television to feel that life has a trajectory. We refresh our Facebook page over and over again, an anxious activity that leaves us anything but refreshed.
Iyer’s essay is not really treading new ground. He is not the first person to write about the perils of being chained to your blinking electronic device, why the “more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.”
But read what he has to say because the ever-thoughtful Iyer reminds us of two things— how far down the rabbit hole we have gone and how steep a price we are paying.
Writers pay for Freedom software that disables for up to eight hours their Internet connections. People apparently pay $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room on the Californian coast for the privilege of not having a television in their room. Connectivity has become the new Hotel California—you can check out any time you like but you can never leave.
I remember a couple of years ago a writer friend completing her first book sent out a mass email saying she was getting rid of her Internet at home. She’d still sporadically go to the café to check her email but she wanted to resist the urge to be constantly checking it instead of writing.
But at that time she managed to pull the plug. Now it seems more and more of us have to pay someone else to pull it for us.
As for the price we pay, the statistics are ominous—the average office worker gets at most about three minutes at a time at his or her desk, without interruption. The effect of that is worth noting. It’s not the usual hand wringing about families that never talk at their dinner table because they are all looking at their PDAs or the overstretched multitasking brain with its short attention span.
More than that, empathy, as well as deep thought, depends (as neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have found) on neural processes that are “inherently slow.” The very ones our high-speed lives have little time for.
The loss of empathy should give us all pause. It doesn’t mean that this year’s new year’s resolutions will be about a rush to unplug. We are probably too far gone for that. I read the Joy of Quiet on my Blackberry on a shuttle where I could have been thinking profound thoughts instead. Or just taking a nap, a much underrated activity these days.
Yet if it does anything, the essay reminds all of us frantically connected, linkedin, facebooked types what the philosopher Blaise Pascal said—that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
You don’t need to go to a Benedictine monastery to do that as Iyer does regularly. A friend of mine manages to do that quite splendidly in a crowded bar as well, relishing the solitude of his thoughts along with whisky and cigarettes. But lately he’s loaded the Facebook app on his klunky Nokia and is thinking about upgrading to a Samsung Galaxy.
I fear for his Joy of Quiet in 2012.