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Conversation: An Ancient Custom for a New Year

As Pico Iyer notes in this marvelous Op-Ed piece, The Joy of Quiet, in the New Year New York Times, “We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.”

Iyer references our desperate desire for space, physical, emotional, mental, logistical space, to truly engage – with others, with ourselves, with our inner lives and our outward aspirations. Notably, he points to Antonio Damasio’s research, which indicates that deep thoughts requires neural processes that are inherently slow.

“So what to do?” asks Iyer. One solution is available in that ancient custom: Conversation. Indeed, Iyer goes as far as to describe conversation as something that not only makes him feel better and happier, but that also brings joy.

As you look for harmony, inspiration and meaning this New Year, why not make 2012 a year for joy, by slowing down and embracing conversation?


  1. dan bloom says


    In a recent interview, the writer George Steiner spoke about “the constant din” that surrounds us 24/7 now in this postmodern high-tech world we have created. He was speaking of the need to find silence from time to time, to get away from the constant din of life. And then Time magazine essayist Pico Iyer wrote a splendid oped commentary in the New York Times the other day titled “The Joy of Quiet.”

    Things come together. After reading the Steiner interview last week, I took the way he spoke of “the constant din” to have an extra meaning, and I put some quotation marks around the phrase and shortened it to “the CD.” And by CD I mean “constant din” and by “the CD” I mean “the constant din.”

    I sent the new coinage over to the folks at Urban Dictionary, and 23 hours later, in the midst of the constant din, the editors there accepted it and “the CD” is now part of the online dictionary. In addition, I sent the link over to Facebook, I blogged it and then I made a YouTube piece about it as well. And then I sent the entire linkage event by email to both Mr Steiner and Mr Iyer.

    A new meme is born.

    Steiner was asked in a recent interview conducted by a young woman: “You have argued that new technologies are a threat to the “silence” and “intimacy” necessary for an encounter with great works.”

    Steiner, now 82, replied: ”People are living in a constant din. There is no more night in cities. Young people are afraid of silence. What will become of serious and difficult reading? Is it possible to read Plato while wearing a Walkman? I find this very worrying.”

    Iyer, for his part, spoke about how how had read an interview with cutting-edge designer Philippe Starck. What allowed him to remain so consistently ahead of the curve? Iyer asked himself, and then he asked Starck the same question:

    “I never read any magazines or watch TV,” Starck told Iyer. “Nor do I go to cocktail parties, dinners or anything like that.” He lived outside conventional ideas, he implied to Iyer, because “I live alone mostly, in the middle of nowhere.”

    Iyer also thinks that silence is golden.

    “In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time,” he opedded in the Times. “The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug. Like teenagers, we appear to have gone from knowing nothing about the world to knowing too much all but overnight.”

    Pico Iyer knows what the CD is all about and why it is bad for us. George Steiner has known this all his life.

    The average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen, Nicholas Carr wrote in “The Shallows.”

    Mr. Carr also knows what the CD is all about and how damaging it can be. So do important thinkers and writers such as William Powers, Edward Tenner and Emily Bazelon.

    “The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, although one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month,” Pico Iyer tells us in the Times piece. “The urgency of slowing down — to find the time and space to think — is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context.”

    “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”

    Pascal also once said that “all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Ouch! Oi. He knew about the CD, too.

    Iyer notes: “We have more and more ways to communicate, as Thoreau noted, but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And — as he might also have said — we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.”

    The CD, the CD, the CD threatens to do us in! That damn constant din.

    So what to do?

    Iyer observes that two of his journalist pals observe an “Internet sabbath” every weekend, turning off their online connections from Friday night to Monday morning, “so as to try to revive those ancient customs known as family meals and conversation.”

    Iyer also says he friends who try to go on long walks on Sundays, or conveniently “forget” their cellphones at home.

    For Iyer, who lives in Japan now with his Japanese wife and her two children, he has never once in his life used a cellphone and he’s never Tweeted or entered Facebook. He does use email, however, although for some reason he does not reply to my polite questions by email.

    I try not to go online till my day’s writing is finished, and I moved from Manhattan to rural Japan in part so I could more easily survive for long stretches entirely on foot, and every trip to the movies would be an event.

    Iyer says he’s looking for a kind of postmodern joy that goes beyond the CD, which a monk named David Steindl-Rast describes as “that kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.”

    Me, I’m looking for a way to put the CD its place and keep it on a tight leash. We do not need “a constant din.” We need a constant peace. Iyer says it well, and Professor Steiner knows it all too well. We are doomed, doomed, if we don’t keep the CD at bay.

    It will only get worse, no?

    • Interesting observation. I don’t have enough knowledge to assert this reaction with force, but I do suspect that every generation that experiences change (and which does not) finds there to be at least some constant din. Perhaps constancy of that din is, forgive me, a constant? Maybe on further thought, since humankind moved towards mechanization, through the industrial revolution and now to a “virtual” clamor of information, there has for centuries been some form of claustrophobic character to our experience?

      Will it get worse? Actually, I am more optimistic, and believe that we will adapt and innovate our way to greater harmony and calm. I certainly hope we do.

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