Photo credit: Simon Skreddernes
After having walked alone to the South Pole for 50 days and nights under the midnight sun without uttering a word, raised my three daughters, worked as a publisher for 21 years, and spent the last 18 months writing the book Silence in the Age of Noise
I have come up with the following three observations: The basic state in our brain is one of chaos
. An abundance of activities leaves us with a feeling of experiential
poverty. And we are living in the age of noise.
The reason that it took me so long to understand this is that my days in Norway often pass on autopilot. I sleep, wake up, check my phone, shower, eat, check my phone, and head off to work while I am checking my phone. A study found that users in rich countries touch their phones 2,600 times a day — once every 33rd second. Technology is not the problem; we are. Looking at my daughters — Ingrid, Solveig, and Nor — I am surprised the number is not higher.
However, in between, whenever I fall out of this habitual rut and sit quietly in a room alone, without any goal, without anything to look at, the chaos surfaces. It is difficult only
to sit there. Multiple temptations to find something to do surface. My brain, which functions so well on autopilot, is no longer helpful. It's not easy being idle when nothing else is going on — it is quiet and you are alone. I often choose to do anything else rather than to fill the silence with myself.
I have gradually come to realize that the source of many of my problems lies precisely in this struggle.
Of course, I was not the first person to have such thoughts. The boredom theorist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal
, promoted this type of exploration as early as the 1600s: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." The present hurts, concluded Pascal. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh objectives that serve to draw our attention outward and away from ourselves. Today, thanks to never-ending new inventions in Silicon Valley, silence is almost extinct.
Apple's Steve Jobs understood not only the benefits but also the dangers associated with using the technology that he helped to invent. Jobs accepted the consequences, but limited his own children's access to Apple products. I have more faith in Steve Jobs the responsible father than in the visionary marketing genius who bears the same name.
According to a much-referenced study, we humans are worse at concentrating than a goldfish. Humans today lose their concentration after eight seconds. In the year 2000 it was 12 seconds, while the goldfish, rather far beneath us on the food chain, averaged nine. I suspect that the research on goldfish is extremely limited and that the performance of these creatures should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt. Nonetheless, my reason for mentioning the study is in regards to the conclusions it draws about humans: with each passing second, it seems increasingly difficult for us to focus on a single topic.
I have more faith in Steve Jobs the responsible father than in the visionary marketing genius who bears the same name.
We find an echo of Pascal in a note by the author David Foster Wallace
: "Bliss — a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you've never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out" and, he concluded, it will feel like finally getting a drink of water after many days in the desert. Wallace's solution is to accept this state and then do something with it. It's about functioning well in an environment that shuts out everything that's vital and human: breathing without air. "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."
Let us stop at that word: unborable
Perhaps it should be the other way around — might it be good for people to occasionally be a little bit bored? To refrain from plugging themselves in? To stop and wonder about what it is that we are actually doing? I think that's what Wallace meant, too. When he was a small boy, attending elementary school, he shared a grand ambition with his mother: "I wanted to create a brilliant play, but it wouldn't start until all of the audience members except for one had left the theatre because they got so bored and quit the performance."
I like that the only thing required here is endurance.
Boredom can be described as a lack of purpose. According to philosopher Lars Fr. H. Svendsen, boredom always gives the feeling of being held captive. In a particular situation, or just in the world in general. I recognize this in myself. When I was little, waiting for something to happen, I got bored to the point where it was almost painful. My mother told me it was healthy to be bored. Only now do I understand what she meant. Today I also observe my own children, bored to tears, imprisoned in themselves, almost desperate when they think nothing is happening. I've learned from my mother and believe it would be best if they could experience that more often.
But they don’t. Today's boredom is seldom about a lack of experiences, in which nothing is happening, as my mother had in mind. It is the opposite. An abundance of activities are creating boredom, or a feeling of experiential poverty. And this last point is interesting. Things just get to be too much.
When I look at my children, I see that they hardly pause anymore. They are always accessible, and almost always busy. The three of them tend to sit in front of a screen — usually alone. I do it sometimes too. Become engulfed in my smartphone, enslaved to my tablet — as a consumer and at times as a producer. I am constantly interrupted on my tablet, interruptions engendered by other interruptions. It is stupid.
Because the more you do to avoid boredom, the more bored you become.
What is worth my time?
is one of the most common questions of humanity. Answers have been about the same values for thousands of years: love, friendship, making a difference. My tablet
does not fit well.
To shut out the world — to sometimes experience silence — is, as I write in my book, not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is about searching for your own South Pole, seeing the world a bit more clearly, and trying to love your life.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the first explorer in history to reach the "three poles" — North, South, and the summit of Everest. During these expeditions, he experienced extreme periods of silence — the longest being 50 days. He has since returned to Norway and searches for moments of silence within his noisy family life and work as a writer and publisher. Silence
has been published in 33 languages.