“The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” – Søren Kierkegaard
We are afraid of ourselves. This may seem an abstruse philosophical statement, yet a recent study reported in the magazine Science made this arresting observation:
“participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”
That’s right; some participants would rather administer electric shocks to themselves than sit and let their mind wander.
Solitude is equated with boredom and not with opportunity. We have succumbed to a mentality establishing being busy as a meritorious value, where our valor elevates with degrees of distraction, such as “crazy-busy” or “insanely-busy.” Our worth is evaluated by our capacity for quantity and the swiftness of our responses, instead of the quality of our content and our thoughts. We have abandoned thoughtfulness and with it our happiness. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed that, “Reverie helps us inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.” We have failed to exercise our imaginative powers despite the suggestion by entrepreneur Scott Berkun, for example, that, “Our unique advantage on this planet is the inventive capacity of our minds.”
Indeed, introspection may be painful, as comedian come philosopher Louis C. K. notes here. But avoiding the pain of personal thought is to avoid the mystery, and the potential, of life. External or internal dialogue cultivates our character, and enables us to face up to our deeper authentic psyche. “When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul… ” said Friedrich Nietzsche. To be original requires us to be able to think for ourselves.
Wandering the terrain of our mental universe is to relinquish constraints and venture into the uncertain. But to be alone, as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out, is to be accountable for ourselves and our choices. If being alone with yourself is terrifying, you might want to take the small steps encouraged by the beautiful video below…