A year ago around this time, I wrote the post ‘No Texting for Lent and The End of Solitude’. It was in response to the news about some Roman Catholic bishops urging the faithful to restrain from texting as a penance during Lent. And around the same time, I came across the article by William Deresiewicz ‘The End of Solitude’, pointing out the difficulty of remaining alone in our over-connected society.
Now a year after Deresiewicz published his essay, the number of tweets had grown by 1,400%. Now there are 50 million tweets per day, an average of 600 tweets per second. So, if you’re calling for ‘No texting’ at Lent, you might as well tell people not to use the phone, the computer, the iPhone, all the smart gadgets, in other words, get off the human race for the time being.
Hey, that may not be such a bad idea. The current issue of The American Scholar has another article by Deresiewicz, yes, on solitude again. I’m glad to read articles on ‘Solitude’, why? There just aren’t too many written on this topic. And thanks to Deresiewicz, seems like his is the only voice crying in the digital wilderness. The article is a lecture he delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of last year, entitled ‘Solitude And Leadership’.
If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.
This quote at the beginning of the article just about sums it all up.
Speaking to this class of freshman, all eager and gung-ho to fall in line with the rank and file of this prestigious Military Academy, Deresiewicz has the audacity (ok, guts) to tell his audience to shun conformity, break away from regimentation, to ask questions, to seek their own reality, to form their own opinion, and to exercise moral courage. And his main crux: it is only through solitude can they do this.
Facebook and Twitter, and yes, even The New York Times, only expose you to other people’s thinking. Whenever you check your tweets, or get on to your social network, or read the newspaper for that matter, you are only hearing other people’s voices:
That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
He urged them to read books instead. Well aren’t books other people’s opinion too? True, sometimes you need to put them down too to visualize you own reality and formulate your own stance. But, books, especially the time-tested ones, have weathered social scrutinies and oppositions, and yet still stand today offering us wisdom of perspectives in finding our own path.
Further, the major difference between a well-written book and a tweet, or a Comedy Central episode, or even a newspaper article, is basically, time.
The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day… for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.
Of course, this may sound reductionist. But, I like the idea of slowing down in this rapidly shifting world. Deresiewics urged the freshmen of West Point to practice concentrating and focusing on one thing rather than multi-tasking. He charged them to take the time to slowly read, think, and write, in solitude, an axiom that’s so rad that his audience probably had never heard before.
In this über connected world we’re in, it’s unnatural to be alone. A solitary moment has to be strived for with extra effort, and much self-discipline. That means unplugging the phone, turning off the computer and anything smart, yes, including friends, real or virtual. For Lent or not for Lent, it could well be the only way to find out who we are and where we are heading. Even if we’re not aspiring to lead, at least we know whom we should follow. And, you’ll never know, others may be attracted to our slowness and surety that they just might step right behind us. So it’s best not to steer them too close to the cliff.