“According to new research from psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard, people would rather do something -- even engage in a little masochistic distraction -- than sit and do nothing but think.
“The researchers conducted a series of studies involving nearly 300 men and women, ranging in age from 18 to 77. Subjects were asked to sit alone in a room for six to 15 minutes, away from cell phones and other distractions, and "entertain themselves with their thoughts." Afterwards, they were asked what they thought about the experience.
“How did people react? On average, most subjects said they didn't enjoy having nothing to do. And this effect was found across all ages.
"What is striking is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid," the psychologists wrote in a paper describing the research.
“The paper is scheduled to be published July 4 in the journal Science.”
It is apparent from those studies, that the bulk of the American people are a very deeply demoralized people. Clearly we have learned to think and experience in unison. The old adage that to know more is to be more is being discarded. We are rapidly becoming a people who intellectually perform the dead man’s float instead of trying to learn something new or even try to examine and reflect about the events of our personal biographies. The goal of our lives is to be ceaselessly entertained. We have become “characters unable to undergo the effort of sustaining thought,” in the words of John Dewey.
A child, whatever else it is or does lives wholeheartedly. No young mind begins as being jaded or bored. The life of a young child is full of fascination and wonder. Children are little souls in the making, and what they are interested in finding out makes clear what kind of child we really are. Activity works hand in hand with discovery. No person of common sense strives to be mediocre. My life has abounded with talented, colorful characters, brilliant episodes death threats, narrow escapes that result from the thirst of a broad experience, and I am not alone in this. The contributors to this site such as William Cummings, F.B. Ali, (who has written a beautiful memoir,) Walrus, David H., Neill Richardson, Harper, are people of wide experience and broad culture and could say the same thing about episodes in their own lives.
The child is full of energetic joy and vigorous curiosity. When we are little and can discern an interest that appeals to us, we hurl ourselves at it without reservation and attack it with persistent energy. When I was a kid, I found life enormously interesting. What did I think about? Well, of course, the major figures in my life were my dad, mom and my older sister.
But aside from my family life, my mind was always aboil with interests and a thirst for experiences. When I was a very little kid I built miniature trains, even building the tracks using a tiny hammer and tiny nails to hammer the rails down into the ties. I would then work to create landscape for the trains to snake about in, and that activity gave me great satisfaction.
We did not yet have TV yet, so as a kid of five, left alone to myself, I once dug up the skeleton of a horse that had been buried behind the rural barn behind our house in Connecticut. I remember standing in the kitchen, holding the horse’s thigh bone, thinking my mother was on the verge of fainting dead away. I constantly explored the woods. I loved the countryside and the quiet, sun-speckled forest with their little brooks. I loved field mice and toads, chipmunks and birds, and big green frogs, and all kind of snakes. During the summer, I would keep a chipmunk in a little cage and feed it with peanut butter and take it out and hold it, completely fascinated, until it was time to set it free. Such encounters develop our compassion.
When I was 12, and my mother had remarried, I found a small, dull red book in my parents’ library (they never opened a book in my presence,) and it was full of technology about World War II fighter planes, “The Focke-Wulf 190 performs best from the altitude of 12,000 to 22,000 ft, etc.” I studied the Grumman Wildcat, Hellcat, the Avenger, the P-40, the B-17, ,the Corsair and the P-51.I soon began to build fighter planes from tissue paper and tiny balsa wood strips, carefully painting them in their wartime colors and hanging them from my bedroom ceiling.
I was an adventurous kid, who loved to hike in the woods, who fished for trout and used my slingshot to improve my eye and I learned to feel the predominating pride that comes with being a hunter. I was also a passionate camper, an expert at fire building and reasonable knot tier. I taught riflery and archery. When I was in boarding school, as a junior, I ran a telegraph line around the third floor of my dorm so all of us could tap out Morse messages after the lights had gone out. I built my own hi-fi amplifiers from Heath kits. All of that required study and the patient following of directions.
What traits of the child can be seen in such activity? First of all, one interest will open other fields of inquiring, and they will lead to another interest. After we study that, the mind is liable in most case to search even further, to select a topic that is the outgrowth of our initial inquiry but which acts to narrow it a bit. Fighter planes, studying their tactics and their victories was one topic, but from there we can inquire about military technology, study the engines that power the plane, study the weapons, the avionics, and study the structure of the aircraft that is key to its performance that makes it superior to the rest. Clearly, you clearly cannot study them all, but from studying just a few with some thoroughness, you will get sense of a family of interests whose branches you can learn about. Most of all, you will find more and more pleasure in your investigations.
As children, we act, we experiment, we read and learn, not because we are drab, tame animals that are being herded from one distraction to the next, but because we are full of delighted joy and expectation at having a life to live. We rejoice in our ability to reflect and profit from what has happened to us. We thrive and are nourished by the accomplishments of others because they arouse a competitiveness that makes us want to be like them, to gain the talents that may allow us one day to be equal or even surpass them. When we gaze at brilliant literary creation, our mind is awed by its dimension, its purpose, the strategy behind its structure. We don’t allow its excellences, its extent, its tactics of presentation, the finish of its style, to mindlessly flood and overwhelm us, but instead they urge us to gather the means and insights and gifts of mind and develop the temperament that may one day be able to do something similar. The pride of excellence goads us to further activity. If all of your discipline efforts fail to surpass it or even equal it, it is to your credit that the attempt was made.
The ideal of living a constantly improving life must rest on the sound examination of the life you have already lived. To do this takes powers of analysis and they must be courageous and unflinching. What were the roots of your mistakes in life? Too much haste? Too much pride? Too little audacity? Too little persistence and consistency? An overestimation of your own talents and underestimated the talents of others? Giving away to the idea that you must prevail at all costs? Lack of moral courage that helps resist corrupt blandishments of life? Each of us can make his own list.
Clearly the lives of many today are not wholehearted but rudderless. People float like empty corks in the tide, carefree and inane. The current of trivia takes them where it will, and while a few of them make little intermittent, faltering ineffectual movements to break free of the tide, those efforts usually amount to very little. There is a marvelous passage in Plutarch that says that “…we humans have an innate capacity to enjoy learning and contemplation (and) does it not follow that is reasonable to criticize people who waste this capacity on sights and sounds that do not deserve serious consideration, to the neglect of those that are fine and beneficial.”
He goes on to say that, “Each of has the capacity to choose to use his mind, to make a shift from time to time and to change direction with greatest ease and according to a deliberate decision, and it therefore follows that we should go after what is best for us, so that we do not just see, but are nourished by what we see.”
That is simply magnificent.
Today’s world is full of chit-chat, and listening to chit-chat is like taking a ball peen hammer to your brain. Chit-chat means that the talkers, gossipers, and windbags, are putting forth no significant effort at all to communicate anything of substance. They were floating on the sensation of being with other relaxed people, and they find that company to be soothing, lulling and comforting. But there is really no effort being spent, no learning is taking place. Dawdling affords a certain pleasure; it just happens to be an ignoble one.
But clearly it seems that the level of informal discourse has fallen to where it is no longer a spirited exchange of ideas or experiences. A friend of mine drifted into a group of neighbors, and what did they discuss? One person talked loudly of switching her TV systems from Time Warner Cable to Direct TV because TWC was too expensive.. There was talk about the expensiveness of people’s electric bill. There was talk about the expensiveness of propane versus natural gas. One loud woman told the gathering that her favorite TV series was “24,” and she likes to watch “NSIC” because Mark Harmon was “the most attractive man on Earth.” No one said anything that was worth knowing. Or repeating. No one told stories. Apparently no one had lived a life. Their lives were all second hand, chosen right off the rack. After fifteen minutes, you wanted to rush home and blow your brains out, he said.
Another friend of ours had just emerged from a similar experience. She sat and listened to a woman who reads best selling author James Patterson because he’s easy, and he’s entertaining, but asked why he is entertaining, she had no answer. It is her habit never to bother her head about structure or style. Style is an author’s literary personality, but she doesn’t understand what style is. Another person present boasted of reading tale of Two Cities, last year, but grew resentful when asked about which character they liked best. Apparently reading a book is trouble enough without having to remember its characters or its plot.
Unfortunately lethargy, boredom, fatigue, idleness have serious and unintended consequences. It is our own acts and achievement that act to create hope for us. We do certain actions rather than others because what is at stake is the kind of person that we want to become.
In November of 1984, I wrote the following entry in my journal. This is mot a polished piece of prose, but it was a sincere and painful utterance.
“Time to take stock. Not a good time. My lungs are suffering from some kind of infection, my spirits are gloomy, my mind is clear, my judgments are penetrating, but I don’t have the energy to defy what I know to be true. Therefore, I feel weighed down, without hope, dully angry.
“I think it is disheartening to see in adults who are ethical and intellectual mediocrities who seem to have abandoned all attempts to improve themselves. They accept their imperfections without struggling against them. They do not realize that what made them endurable, lovable, and worthy of respect was that struggle. It did not matter whether they won or lost that struggle; it was their making it that counted. Life is a tragedy, if only because human beings do not understand its nature in time. In other words, with increasing age, worn down by repetition, tired out by monotony, we abandon the effort to perfect ourselves at the time when we are becoming, day by day, more unattractive and mediocre. But instead of resisting our decline, we aid in it. We feel that we are entitled to ceaseless amusements; we feel that we have the right to become trivial and inane, and we have a right to dulling ease and comfort; we are entitled to be mediocre. Most of the world is mediocre, so why keep struggling in the web? Why should we struggle when we can lie quiet and enjoy ourselves?
“Nor am I immune. I sense at times a lack of the selflessness that is required to make a concerted effort towards a goal. My mind jumps from one topic to another like a nervous flea. I begin to think that human talents are only temporary, merely a wet smear on a heated brick, whose effect will hardly making a scratch on the face of history. I begin to think, what is the use of swimming when the sea is drying up?
“But those attitudes, including mine are totally stupid. To respond to a time of unheard of challenges with complacent submission to what is worst in ourselves, when what the time requires is that we lead a strenuous life to meet new, more urgent demands amounts to a suicide of purpose. Instead, by repudiating the very demands themselves rather than surmounting them, we are creating a worthless self that has no attractiveness. We see souls that have lost the attraction they once had. But I see it happen. The souls of the lazy, the dishonest, the self-pampering fog over the more time passes. They never see it happening. But it does happen. What kind of a world are you making, what kind of soul are you making? So amen. World without end, and amen. But a future spent among such people is not a future. It is repeating a poor past and living an ignoble present.
“So world without end, Amen. World without end, amen. It is time to turn once again to the old, healing prayers, “Deal bountifully with thy servant, that he might live and keep thy word.” Amen.