I drove my wife and my daughter Jenna and her boyfriend, Josh, to see bison yesterday. Northwest of Pawhuska, OK is a Tallgrass reserve where buffalo still roam the grasslands. Josh and Jenna are both Harding University All-Conference athletes and their school mascot is the Bison…so they wanted to encounter the beast face to face. It was an unseasonally cool late Sunday afternoon and we eventually discovered a herd of about sixty bison. We got out of the car and I stood looking east, down into a verdant valley, a cool 68 degree breeze ruffled the flap of my polo shirt. I was almost cold and it was July in Oklahoma, and I listened to the prairie…birds chirped, the wind rustled the grass and I listened to the beauty of whatever is the opposite of technology. The prairie wind was filled with unhurried peace, a joyous void of agendas, and I stood facing the breeze imagining what the wind in my hair might feel like if I had hair and I felt it…I was fully endowed with wind-blown hair standing on the crest of a ridge overlooking bison chewing grass with no place to go any time soon. And I wondered what it must have been like to be a cowboy sleeping out here in the grasslands below a blanket of space and stars, alone.
Have we lost our passion for aloneness, or even for focus, for concentration, for undivided attention to one particular detail, to perfect a moment or a single task of our own volition and creation unaffected by the jury of public affirmation? Can we even aspire to concentrate or is that impossible in our day and age in which we are never “alone”?
I once played a 2 iron off the 8th tee of Hillcrest Country club while playing a qualifying round with high school teammates. The 8th hole is a narrow par 4 running along a well-traveled highway and a blocked swing results in a push, a ball flying right into oncoming traffic. A quick overprotective swing results in a pull hook into the winding creek left of the fairway. In mid-swing a passing car honked…and I swung beautifully, a piercing low draw bounded 230 yards down the fairway. My buddies laughed and asked how I had hit such an excellent shot without flinching when the car horn blared to which I replied, “What horn?” I was so focused, I never heard the horn. I had a way of focusing while playing golf that escapes me now. Whatever one calls it, focus, concentration, unwavering purpose…it seems a fast fading practice. And perhaps, it’s because we are rarely alone.
William Deresiewicz, speaking to a recent plebe class at West Point had this to say about concentration and being alone. “You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?”
What I’m wondering is how the mind of a teen can have room for solitude and concentration and focus in the midst of 3,000 texts in a month (I’ve actually seen phone bills of teens with text counts this high) …that’s 100 a day…that’s never being alone isn’t it?
And so how are we doing at solitude? How are we doing at getting away from constant feedback and affirmation?
Here are some thoughts from Emerson and Thoreau on Solitude. Emerson said, “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading (Facebook), and writing in the daily (WordPress), time-worn yoke of their opinions (Twitter).” One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth. “God is alone,” Thoreau said, “but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion.” The university was to be praised, Emerson believed, if only because it provided its charges with “a separate chamber and fire” — the physical space of solitude.
William Deresiewicz further expands on aloneness. “Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn’t call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn’t always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn’t always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.”
Is there irony in posting this via Facebook, WordPress and Twitter? Sure is…but the exponential power that makes these apps work can be the Devil keeping company with legion…or the concentration of that same powerful tech-laser on places in our hearts that long for the untrodden holy places of quiet wonder. So quit reading this, turn off your phone, find a quiet place and enjoy the wonder of places in your heart you’ve never before visited, places where the wind gently blows the flowing locks of your unchained solitude.