The Death of Stillness: The Price We Pay for Losing Our Private Peace
by Richard Mahler
Whatever the question, "busy" is the answer.
How are you?
How's the family?
We hear it again and again, all day long. But you can't fool me. "Busy" is more than a buzzword. It's shorthand for, "My schedule is a nightmare, my phone won't stop ringing, and my e-mail box is overflowing. I have a mile-long list of obligations to my spouse, boss, kids, friends, pets, car, and houseplants. I'm so swamped that I can't afford to give you more than a one-word answer." What's wrong with being busy? Plenty. Americans have become the most anxious, time-stressed people in the world, thanks in part to all the high-tech devices at our fingertips that are meant to make life easier. The white noise of trivia and the thrill of consumption fill our heads and guide our behaviors.
Are we happy about it? Probably not. We're much too busy to be happy. It's no coincidence that "busyness" is only one letter away from "business." Workaholism-reflected in near-constant, often job-related activity-might be the
last socially sanctioned addiction in North America. Within the last 20 years, we've backed away from heavy smoking, hard drinking, and recreational sex as permissible indulgences, yet working our fingers to the bone-and our brains to jelly-is still perfectly okay. In fact, it's given approval at every turn.
Walk into any airport these days and you're surrounded by people at work: on the phone, at the keyboard, in the briefcase. Hotels (and even budget motels) are in cutthroat competition to see who can offer travelers the greatest number of
work-related amenities, such as high-speed Internet access, fax machines, office-style desks, and overnight courier services. Sit down at a restaurant, drive down an interstate, ride a commuter train, or take a walk: half the folks around you are lost to a cellular or a laptop.
What's missing? The three things many of us long for: silence, stillness, and solitude. The mechanical clamor of the Industrial Revolution and the electronic beep of the Information Age have obliterated the soothing quiet that once embraced
us. Unnatural sound has invaded virtually all of our public spaces, including otherwise pristine national parks. In 1998, wilderness sound recordist Gordon Hempton toured 15 states and found only two areas-remote parts of Colorado and
Minnesota-that were free of sounds made by motors, airplanes, guns, and other human-operated devices for more than 15 minutes during daylight hours.
Noise is everywhere once we walk out the door, but somehow we also feel compelled to introduce it to our inner-sanctums: flicking on TV sets, computers, or stereos; playing back answering machines; encouraging our children to play video
games; and installing gadgets in every room of the house. As columnist Anna Quindlen notes, the static in the collective national psyche "threatens to drown out the small voices of cosmic questioning or contentment."
Lost from our daily routine is time alone to simply abide peacefully with ourselves. Yet this is where we often touch the fullness of our possibilities, waking up to the cause and effect of our lives. Indeed, moments of solitude allow us to consider the meaning of life itself. The sanctuary of stillness and silence also provides a
serene escape that helps protect our health and restore our equilibrium. Both clinical research and personal experience confirm that self-reflection is a valuable tool for reducing stress, expanding insight, and increasing happiness. The benefits of devoting even ten quiet minutes a day to ourselves include mental clarity, greater efficiency, and a sense of well-being. The negative consequences of constant interaction are
obvious. We get irritable and short-tempered, restless and tired, without seeming to know why. Silence is accessible to each of us and costs nothing. Stillness is as soothing as a bubble bath, as illuminating as a bright idea, and as thrilling as a new romance. Solitude allows us, as 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau observed
at Walden Pond, to "be completely true to ourselves." The ability to mold a healthful and life-affirming environment remains within our grasp, even though human-made sound and activity continue to encroach on public and private space. And as we continue filling the world with distractions, often unbidden, we will keep craving
the serenity that inevitably shrinks with their arrival.
Richard Mahler is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, NM. His book, Stillness:
Daily Gifts of Solitude is about the steady loss of silence, solitude, and simplicity in modern life, and why overscheduled Americans need them back.
This article is distributed courtesy of the Center for a New American Dream.
For more information, click on www.newdream.org.