“All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
—Blaise Pascal, 17th century French philosopher
I always took this as an indictment of our constant need to be busy and distracted, our sense of not being comfortable in our skin. As a big fan of Solitude ever since I read Walden and Zen practitioner sitting doing nothing but following my breath, I agreed with Pascal that everyone should learn how to sit in a room alone.
But now I wonder. The fact is that we’re not made to sit in a room, alone with our own endlessly cycling thoughts and caught up in our own tiny dramas. I suppose there might be some little ants to entertain us or a buzzing fly here and there, but mostly an enclosed room is an—well, enclosed room.
I think we’re mostly made to be outside in company with the great carnival of creation, a body through which and around which the company of fellow life passes. The sun on our face, the breeze on our skin, the song of birds and sounds of droning insects or distant coyotes falling on our ears, the dancing leaves and skittering squirrels and distant mountains and cloud-filled skies a feast for our eyes. We are born to co-participate in it all, not enclose ourselves in the stuffy indoor air surrounded by furniture.
I do spend a lot of time in rooms— sitting at a piano, typing at this computer, turning the pages of a book, eating popcorn with an old video. Believe me, I don’t want to over-romanticize. Just ask any homeless person how important a room is. But every day when I’ve done my duty at my little technologies, I step out the door and I’m a changed person. The smell of the air is different, the sense of adventure beckons, I’m alive and alert to whatever may cross my path.
Today I stood at a rail at the Embarcadero watching the gentle swells of the Bay and the swooping circling gulls and the buzz of lunching humans behind me. But almost all of my fellow companions standing nearby had their heads buried in their phones, locked into that small room of their own creation. If they did look up and saw something interesting, they’d take a photo of it, one they’ll most likely never look at it again. So they lost twice—didn’t see it the first time, hardly saw it afterwards. (I’m not judging from some high horse here—I refuse the i-Phone because I’m well aware how quickly I’d get addicted to checking messages and miss the miracles in front of my eyes. The phones didn’t create the problem— we can walk through this world as a backdrop to our drama and miss it all, phone or not. But precisely because we need help being attentive and present to an alive universe larger than our repetitive thoughts, we need take extra care with which machines we choose. And if it was hard for Pascal to sit quietly in a room, imagine what it would be like if we were so confined— without phone, computer or wifi!)
“Now I see the secret of the making the best person; it is to grow in the open air and eat and sleep with the earth,” said that ruddy old poet, Walt Whitman, and summertime is the chance to reclaim that connection. Long days wandering through the woods or ambling down the beach or immersed in water, dinners out on the deck, evenings under the stars. And then so nice to have a room when the thunderstorms hit or the mosquitoes are unbearable.
Virginia Woolf indeed needed a “Room of Her Own” to discover who she could be beyond the narrow confines of her culture’s defining of her as a woman. Brian Wilson needed a “place where he could go and tell his secrets to, in my room” and if you’ve seen Love and Mercy, you’ll understand how important such a refuge must have been for him. EM Forster prefers “A Room with a View” so he can choose between the inside and outside worlds.
So what’s my point at the end of all this? Dang if I know— I do like indoor spaces, prefer them, in fact, for my music classes and most ceremonies. And we do partly define ourselves with the indoor spaces we create, the paintings and photos we hang, the books we shelve, the furniture we choose. But to wholly discover who we are, we would do well to get the heck out of the house and join the living, breathing world of creatures different from ourselves, feel the green embrace of trees and plants, the beckoning invitation of sky and stars, the swirling motion and dance of the passing parade, the waters that call us back to watery wombs or remind us of our own flowing liquid states.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting out!
PS And to bring this back to Blaise Pascal, who really does have some memorable quotes:
"I'm sorry I didn't have the time to make this shorter."