It seemed like a fairly simple task. For a just-published study, researchers asked their subjects to sit in an empty room alone for 15 minutes. The only potential distraction was a device that allowed them to self-administer electric shocks, which they were allowed to try out beforehand. One-quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men, apparently unable to handle 15 minutes of stillness, chose to give themselves a jolt when left on their own.
As you might imagine, these findings sparked a sea of doomsday grievances about technology’s corrosive effects on our lives and our growing addiction to constant stimulus. Buried in these concerns, which are valid to varying degrees, is a fetishization of boredom, the idea that if we could only better tolerate stillness and quiet we would morph into more enlightened people. I’m not so sure about this.
Boredom has a long history of being romanticized, beginning with the Romantics themselves. Fearful of the rising industrialization and technological advances of the early 19th century, thinkers and writers like Immanuel Kant, William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau sought out freedom through retreat. They “wandered lonely as a cloud” or “went to the woods…to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” activities that, according to them, are best done alone.
David Foster Wallace struck a similar note in his posthumously published novel “The Pale King” about an IRS processing center. In this book, boredom — but real boredom and not the Romantics’ day-dreaming sort — is positioned as an antidote to the soul-crushing consumerism and technology that have taken over our culture. In it, he writes:
“The key [to living a meaningful life] is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.
“It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
Sure, there is value to a stilled mind. But is it the answer to all our ills?
By focusing so much on the importance of disconnecting, unplugging, quieting etc., we are ignoring the very real, and actually quite Jewish, significance of engagement. Rather than more minds going inward, I’d rather see more minds proactively and authentically striving outward. (For the record, I believe this can happen by way of social media, but it’s rare.)
What’s the difference between a Jewish house of study and a secular one? The Jewish one is noisy. Traditionally, Jews learn together by reading and discussing a text rather than contemplating it as individuals. In his book “Back to the Sources,” editor Barry Holtz discusses the Jewish house of study: “Reading thus becomes less an act of self-reflection than a way of communal identification and communication. One studies to become part of the Jewish people itself. As much as prayer, study is a ritual act of the community.” He goes on to explain how these discussions enable us to not just study books like the Talmud, but actually “replicate the world” that the Talmud came out of. “It is as if distinctions of time and place are erased, and the participant is catapulted back to Rabbi Akiba’s academy 1,800 years in the past.”
What scares me most about the unprecedented deluge of information that we now live amid is not so much that we are no longer able to sit with our own thoughts. (Whether or not we really ever were is up for debate.) No, what worries me is that we no longer go deep. When we read, and post and like and favorite and share, we aren’t avoiding just loneliness, but also, quite often, careful and thorough engagement with people and ideas.
Being honest with oneself about oneself is notoriously difficult. Even the most mindful among us can’t help but seek refuge in our own minds; our inner-selves are capacious hiding places and make wonderful hosts to our many demons and delusions. We might try to excavate them on our own, but the success rate is low.
So let’s stop the hand-wringing about how everyone has forgotten how to be alone and put that energy into making sure we still remember how to be together. The days of the beit midrash might be behind many of us as a community, but it would behoove us all to make sure that we have not let go of the idea of chevruta. It is the term used to describe partner-study, which, according to the Talmud, allows scholars to sharpen one another. It’s also Aramaic for “friendship.”
In his new book “Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs,” Joshua Wolf Shenk takes aim at the myth of the lone genius, arguing instead for the power of collaboration. “The pair is the primary creative unit — not just because pairs produce such a staggering amount of work, but also because they help us to grasp the concept of dialectical exchange. At its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities, two cultures or traditions, or two people, or even a single person and the voice inside her head,” he wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed.
Shenk’s examples include Lennon and McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie, and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Chevruta study, anyone?
Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward. Contact her on Twitter @elissaavery