By Caitlin Kelly
One of the tedious tasks of suburban living, where most of us drive everywhere, is the constant need to pump gas.
The television screens and their incessant chatter right above the gas pump that some stations now
inflict on offer to customers.
I would actually pay more for quiet gas-pumps. I so crave silence and downtime, those daydreaming moments we all need to just mindlessly stare into space for a bit…
I love teaching college; I teach two two-hour classes every Thursday.
But Friday? I’m wiped! Paying close attention to what I offer and everything my students say, however enjoyable, is also really tiring.
Paying attention takes energy!
Where, short of the Grand Canyon or some other pristine wilderness, can you now luxuriate in pure, unadulterated silence?
Where, short of hiding in your own bed under the covers, (without your phone!), can you sit still and just think?
A new book explores the issue; an excerpt in The New York Times:
Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.
What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.
The sad state of this commons is on display everywhere.
In the summer of 2011, just before Jose and I got married, he took me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat.
My friends, knowing how chatty I am, figured that would be essentially impossible.
The first few days, (which I chronicled here at Broadside every day), were difficult.
But the greatest gift of the retreat was not having to pay attention.
We were told, all 75 of us from around the world assembled in an upstate New York monastery, that if someone looked at us, we did not have to look at them, smile at them or even acknowledge their presence at all.
We were not there for that.
It was the greatest freedom I’d ever felt.
As I wrote then:
I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me.
(How about you?)
Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.
A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.
To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.
By the end, we were deeply reluctant to return to the incessant noise and chatter of Western life. Jose and I went to a local restaurant, and sat at the bar…where we were bombarded visually and auditorily, by three huge television screens.
It was weird and disorienting and exhausting.
When did silence become such a terrifying concept?
Do you treasure silence and disconnection as much as I do?