Time Freed From Time: The Importance of Silence, Stillness & Solitude to the Contemplative Life

jane brox“Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor,” German poet and novelist Herman Hesse once wrote, “Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight…I believe what we lack is joy.  The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival…But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”  And yet in our cutthroat capitalist culture where minutes equal money, we’re always hurrying in a never-ending battle against time.  Unlike our ancestors, whose sense of time was inseparable from the natural world— the unhurried passing from day to night, from winter’s dark days of hibernation to spring’s giddy exuberance and renewed life— our notion of time is bound to a human invention: the clock.  Its hands measure our lives, shaping formless eternity into definite, discrete blocks.  The standardization of time made us unrelentingly conscious of the clock.  The punch of our time stamp, the shriek of the factory whistle, the shrill ring of our six-thirty alarm: no matter where we were, we couldn’t escape its ceaseless tick-tock.  Our every hour suddenly demanded we accomplish something productive, something useful.

In her exquisitely written and intensively researched Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Jane Brox worries we in the modern era no longer have “time freed from time”— those blissful moments unburdened by duty, what great philosopher Bertrand Russell termed “fruitful monotony.”  For Brox, when man is freed from the bondage of strict schedules and endless responsibilities, his imagination can finally wander.  If we’re constantly scrambling to cross obligations off our to-do lists, we can never sustain the deep thought needed to compose a poem, discover a scientific truth, or formulate an elegant mathematical theorem. 

At the beginning of “Chapter 8: Measures of Time,” Brox examines our culture’s pathological accomplishment-mania.  Rather than cherish silence and stillness, we exalt busyness as if a person’s worth was equal to the number of commitments on their calendar: 

“Today, the small, cut-up things of time have become inextricably mixed with our idea of participation in society.  A full calendar and list of obligations stand as marks of our usefulness, and attunement to time keeps us believing we are part of the world.  The old have moved beyond time, to the margins of society, for they have nothing calling them urgently in the day.  But they are in a double bind— they are conscious of the hours and they are waiting for events.  ‘What’s your rush?’ the old inevitably ask the young.” 

Citing ethicist Andrew Skotnicki, Brox suggests our preoccupation with productivity began not with the emergence of the capitalist economy, but with the rise of Christianity.  Though Christian theology insisted social status wasn’t an accurate index of moral worth (after all, Christ, the most moral of men, the son of God himself, had only been a carpenter), it did attach moral significance to productivity.  Proverbs 14:23, for example, states, “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.”  If you squandered your days on Earth, it was believed, you would be condemned either to everlasting damnation in hell or purification in purgatory.  For the medieval monk, the gong of the bell tower represented not only another hour passed, but another hour closer to inevitable judgement day:

“Ethicist Andrew Skotnicki has suggested that this sense of urgency tied to the mechanical clock— all the hurry and consciousness of time— isn’t just the result of the advent of industrialization: ‘Punctuality is the sense of time that we have internalized that is tied directly to productivity and performance.  It has been secularized to meet the demands of the capitalist workplace, but the clock entered Western social history not with the modern business enterprise, but with the notion of Purgatory…Productivity in the Christian West is first measured in moral and spiritual terms…The ticking of the clock is a reminder of the eventual judgment for what one does with one’s time.” 

clock tower painting

Like Mary Oliver, who contemplated the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life (“Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions…A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again,” she so elegantly expressed in her lovely essay “Of Power and Time”), Brox asserts that to create, the artist must have “time freed from time” and devote his full— not fragmented— attention to his artistry:

“To defeat the clock, even for a short time, is often to feel that you’ve defeated the anxieties and constrictions of modern society.  Time freed from time, time unconscious of the passing of hours.  Marshall McLuhan would say that to the extent you are lost in your task, the less it resembles work, and this escape from a sense of time is often tied to the creative life.  Poet Adrienne Rich who, in her early years as a writer lived day in and day out with the pressures of motherhood, understands that a creative life cannot thrive on fragmented attention.  ‘For a poem to coalesce, for a character or action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive,’ she has written, ‘And a certain freedom of the mind is needed— freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not suddenly be snatched away.  Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment.'”

But time freed from time is under attack.  In our fast-paced modern world, we’ve seen a sharp decline in leisure.  Today Americans take fewer vacations and work longer hours.  But why should this be a matter of concern?  Isn’t leisure merely a fruitless frittering away of our precious hours?

Though we in the productivity-obsessed West count idleness as one of the most unforgivable transgressions, throughout time, leisure has been the seedbed of all human progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements— the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough— were conceived in leisure, be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  “Good ideas come slowly,” Brenda Ueland proclaimed in If You Want to Write, her timeless treatise on art, independence and creativity.  Poet of politics Rebecca Solnit agreed: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” 

For the seed of a groundbreaking idea to germinate, it must have silence, stillness and solitude, the fertilizers of creativity.  Unlike loneliness, which is an estrangement from self and has— according to brilliant philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt— offered the “common ground for terror” throughout history, solitude is an affirmation of self, a restorative state where the individual can converse with his innermost being and reconnect with his true identity.  Solitude, Arendt argues, is essential to the life of the mind: only when we’re alone at our desks or in the undisturbed quiet of the main stacks of a library can we focus enough to study and probe, to observe and think, to dissect and analyze.  Far from the cacophony of other people’s opinions, we can finally make out the murmurs of our own thoughts, our own voice. 

Sadly in our noisy age, it’s getting harder and harder to hear ourselves think.  Whether it’s the empty-headed chatter of the 24-hour news cycle or the megaphone of opinions on message boards and Youtube comments, it seems there’s something clamoring for our attention and drowning out our inner voice at all times.  Today millions of people carry a source of near perpetual distraction in their pockets: a smartphone.  The notifications on our phones are seductive siren calls, enticing us to check their glowing screens 80 times a day, or once every 12 minutes.  Because we have non-stop access to the never-ending spectacle of the internet, we continually have something to divert our attention and very rarely have to suffer tedium.  The result?  Our generation has a very low tolerance for boredom.  The second we have nothing to occupy us, we desperately seek out distraction.  After all, why sit listless in the waiting room of a doctor’s office when we can play Candy Crush?

Though the smartphone dazzles and delights with an irresistible theme park of amusements, it severely limits our capacity to stand the stillness and silence so essential to sustained attention.  Because it conditions us to expect entertainment every hour, every minute, an idle moment— a welcome respite to the artists and philosophers of antiquity— is to the modern man an insufferable form of torture.  Trained as we are to seek instant gratification, we want to be captivated by page one of a book, not page one hundred.  We abandon anything that doesn’t immediately engross our interest.  But all critical and free thought, all expressions of creativity, all revolutionary, history-making ideas require we endure occasional periods of monotony.  To lead a contemplative life, a life defined by thought, imagination and creativity, Brox concludes, we have to resist the urge to always be occupied:

“…the release from chronological time is essential for the contemplative life.  Michael Casey, writing in the time-stressed twenty-first century, holds that leisure time makes contemplation possible.  He is not speaking of leisure as we have come to know it, as downtime or recreation, but as a ‘time and space of freedom in which the deep self can find fuller expression.’  Casey has argued that leisure is ‘above all being attentive to the present moment, open to all its implications, living it to the full.  This implies a certain looseness of lifestyle that allows the heart and mind to drift away from time to time…It is the opposite of being enslaved by the past or living in some hazy anticipation of a desirable future…Leisure is a very serious matter because it is the product of an attentive and listening attitude to life.’  It is, he asserts, citing German philosopher Josef Pieper, a form of silence.”

3 thoughts on “Time Freed From Time: The Importance of Silence, Stillness & Solitude to the Contemplative Life

  1. Pingback: Jane Brox on How to Make a Book a Friend, Not a Passing Guest – asia lenae

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