And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life—of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world—that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude.
Isolation, intimacy, and proximity remain as important now as in the past, but how actively are we constructing (and I mean physically constructing) our lives and our homes and our communities to make the “Walden Pond of our own natures” a reality? Deresiewicz asks: “What does the contemporary self want?”
Nicholas Carr’s 2009 Atlantic piece speaks to this:
If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture. In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake:
I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.”
Are we going to be a people who approach the world with a sort of ruggedness and skepticism informed by an understanding of past and present of a decent depth, or will we be more like sponges, absorbing (but not necessarily processing or placing into a context) minute-to-minute information without fitting into a comprehensive vision of the world or narrative that is necessary for information to have meaning that can provide depth to life? Leon Kass answers:
No friend of humanity should trade the accumulated wisdom about human nature and human flourishing for some half-cocked promise to produce a superior human being or human society, never mind a post-human future, before he has taken the trouble to look deeply, with all the help he can get, into the matter of our humanity—what it is, why it matters, and how we can be all that we can be. …
For deep thought, we need solitude. It’s vital, because in silence we come to know ourselves.