I live in a culture of more. More music, more cars (or in Portland, bicycles), more food of more kinds, more exercise, more sex, more multi-tasking, more electronics, more travels, more therapy, more personal growth, more “friends” (oh, those social networking sites!), more recycling, more news, more movies, more social action, more websites, more art, more appointments (crowded palm-pilot or Blackberry), more service to more people, more photographs, more phone calls…. But just this morning, as I was exchanging emails with Susan (more emails), it occurred to me that I may be hard-wired for less. Or to put it another way, maybe I need more solitude, more silence, more daydreaming, more walking alone in the forest, more reflecting, more gazing into the clouds. Reading. Writing. Maybe my attraction to Buddhism is really an attraction to sitting still, doing nothing, and not being perceived as lazy or inadequate for it. (Not that I am much bothered by other people’s perceptions. The problem is that I absorb those perceptions and judge–and limit–myself.) In fact, my need for more quiet may actually have something to do with these damn migraines I have been suffering from increasingly since I was in my twenties. Is it permissible to seek less stimulation in life? What a concept.
Nobody ever talks about the tyranny of connection. It’s always supposed to be a good sign that people are “connected.” I’m not saying I want isolation or disconnection. The very idea that I might be needing less stimulation came to me through connection–through an email conversation. Here is a piece of that:
She: I never used to take time to cocoon. I was really hyper and always moving when I was younger.
Me: I’m opposite of course. If we go back to childhood, I was mostly alone and happy that way. My memories are of watching clouds, playing with dogs, listening to the sounds of the wind and birds and different kinds of trees, making miniature towns out of moss and sticks and bits of gravel, cracking rocks open with my little hammer to see what was inside, and–as soon as I learned how–reading and writing. And if I don’t have solitude, I begin to feel deeply uneasy and a little crazy. I get SICK from too much interaction with other people.
I surprised myself when I said that. It’s true. But I hadn’t looked at it so clearly, and wouldn’t, if I hadn’t been involved in that email interaction with Susan, which encouraged me to look at our differences. So I’m not saying I want to go live in a cave for a decade (though I have had such fantasies). Ten days of silence in a vipassana meditation center is quite enough of that. But I am saying that I might be healthier if I did less. That requires a real shift of consciousness. The desire for solitude is generally perceived as eccentric (at best), evasive or isolationist. Probably unhealthy. And again, the perceptions only matter when I internalize them. Which it appears I often do. “Loner” is not a term of admiration, generally. In fact just a few months ago, as I was teaching Byron, my students found his romanticizing of the outcast not only repulsive but frightening. They associate “loner” with “mass murderer.” This in itself is a sign to me of a culture off balance.
Balance is the thing. We are social creatures. But how social? Maybe we’re so far off-balance as a culture that balance looks weird to us. Sick. Dysfunctional. But some of us may not fit this picture. Some of us (me?) may be hard-wired from birth (or before) for a kind of inner balance that may not accord with the culture in which we find ourselves. I saw that with my two African daughters. Certainly the culture in which they were born is a convivial culture, a communal culture in which people are never alone and never expect to be alone. For Palesa, that was perfect. For Manko, who loves solitude, it was a nightmare. The girls were not products of their culture. They were very different people, and for one of them the southern African lifestyle was perfect; for the other, it wasn’t.
As I have been finding my bearings in this new home of mine, I’ve been looking for things to do. People to meet. Places to go. And interestingly, I’ve been having more migraines here than I had when I was teaching full-time in Houston. Maybe the migraines are a way my body says: shut out the light; turn off the music; be still; get off the computer and quit socializing–or else I am going to pound you into a jelly of quivering pain. I wonder if there are other people who are not cut out for the culture in which we find ourselves. What if migraines, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and anxiety disorder are all ways the body responds to over-stimulation? OK, OK, I’m a doctor of philosophy, not a doctor of medicine. So I will just mind my own business. I’m going to see what happens if I systematically and intentionally cut down on stimulation. For me, that’s a cliff-hanger. For the rest of the world, probably not so much.