End of Alone

Neil Swidey writes, .

There have always been boors blabbing in places where they should be quiet, blithely ignoring the shushes from librarians or the stares from fellow elevator passengers while behaving as though they’re the only ones whose problems matter. Bad manners are bad manners, irrespective of technology, right?

Yes, only technology has vastly expanded this bad behavior, eroding much of society’s stigma against it, and making it everybody’s problem. But here’s the real point: It is dulling our very capacity to ever be alone, or alone in our thoughts. The late British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott popularized the phrase “the capacity to be alone” in the 1950s, to describe a pivotal stage of emotional development. Winnicott argued that an adult’s capacity to be alone had its roots in his experience as a baby, learning to function independently while still in the presence of his mother. Yet today we’re seeing this capacity weakened, whether we’re in public places known for contemplation, like churches and libraries, or whether we’re just sitting by ourselves at home, losing the fight to resist answering our BlackBerries (just ask our new president) or checking our laptops for Facebook updates.

“We’ve gone from an American ethic that championed the lone guy on a horseback to an ethic of managing multiple data streams,” says Dalton Conley, a sociology professor at New York University and author of the new book Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. “It’s very hard for people to unplug and be alone — and be with the one data stream of their mind.”

Or let others be alone. I’ve noticed this for quite awhile whenever I visited Fuller Seminary campus. At first it seems like this wonderful oasis in the midst of the city. There are trees, and walkways, places to sit, a small prayer garden with a bit of a waterfall. It has the appearance of a place of quiet, not entirely unexpected in a setting where spiritual development is seen as a priority. Yet, there’s hardly a place to sit in quiet. There are perpetual conversations, and much of these are the one-sided cell phone conversations of people unable, or unwilling to remain out of verbal contact with an other.

One person’s noise always becomes other people’s noise. It’s hard to hide behind perpetual sounds without injecting that noise into many others. The noisy one, after all, always wins the battle of preference with the quiet one.

This is interesting to me because of what it says not only about society in general but, at Fuller at least, what it is saying about those particularly emphasizing a life as spiritual leaders. If any are to know quiet, it is they. So they can teach it to others.

The noise is perpetual, and I suspect the exterior noise is merely a tip of an iceberg to the internal, which seeks distraction more than confrontation, something quiet does all too well.

Worth reading Swidey’s whole essay, if you can find a bit of quiet.

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