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,” Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “And yet it is, itself, the greatest of our miseries.” The same French philosopher famously remarked that all man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
When telegraphs and trains began to suggest that convenience was more important than content, and that speedier means could make up for unimproved ends, Henry David Thoreau reminded us that “The man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages.” Even half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan, who came closer than most to seeing what was coming, warned, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” Thomas Merton struck a chord with millions, around the same time, by not just noting that “Man was made for the highest activity, which is in fact rest,” but acting on it, and stepping out of the rat race and into a Cistercian cloister.
Yet few of these voices can be heard these days, precisely because “breaking news” is coming through (perpetually) on CNN and Debbie is just posting images of her summer vacation and the phone is ringing. We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for ten seconds or less). And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, Dancing with the Stars!), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet. All we notice is that the distinctions that used to guide and steady us—between Sunday and Monday, public and private, here and there—are gone.
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.
So what to do? The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make best use of them; the Information Revolution came without an instruction manual. All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.
Maybe that’s why more and more people I know, even if they have no religious commitment, seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi; these aren’t New Age fads so much as ways to connect with what could be called the wisdom of old age. Two journalist friends of mine observe an “Internet Sabbath” every week, 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. Finding myself at breakfast with a group of lawyers, in Oxford four months ago, I noticed that all their talk was of sailing—or riding or Bridge: anything that would allow them to get out of radio contact for a few hours.