Spending time alone with our thoughts sounds easy, but isn’t. In my therapy practice, it wasn’t unusual for patients to leave a session — especially early in our relationship — and have difficulty recalling what had been discussed. Once by themselves, the mist of forgetting gripped them.
Many of us use our brains like a piece of white bread on top of a sandwich, covering the indigestible meat of pain. At least, it distracts from the crunching, too-chewy, weighty thing underneath. We don’t want to contemplate but rather cancel ideas, memories, and dystopian futures.
The remarkable author David Foster Wallace (DFW) mentioned the potential anxiety of being alone without switching off the brain. Perhaps we imagine missing out on what friends deem worthwhile activities (so they’d like us to believe). We assume our chums have the favor of other buddies that the stay-at-home souls (you and me) might not possess.
Thinking is difficult, as DFW and others have noted. No one is well-trained in how to do it, instead assuming it flows as a natural gift.
Thinking through, peering into — not over or above the storm — that’s what people don’t want to talk about or wrestle with if those twin ponderings can be avoided.
The Hebrew Bible speaks of such useful wrestling as happened between Jacob and an angel:
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had.
And Jacob was left alone.
And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.”
But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
And he said to him, “What is your name?”
And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Genesis 32: 22-32*
Perhaps our angel waits to be found, hoping we will wrestle with the difficulties we try to set beyond our reach. Is deep reading in silence an invitation to such matters? Jacob, after all, sent his family away before the angel appeared.
One of the less elevating uses of visual entertainment occurs when it becomes a stand-in for thoughtfulness and reveals a passive passageway to escape. We dread boredom for its vulnerability to gloom and look for a way to block it out. When added to self-doubt and fears of our future, many of us take flight from ourselves, preferring TV or movies and a focus on the lives of others.
The crowd we belong to tells us what is of value. Without independent ideas, our role becomes one of receiving their borrowed thoughts, like a postal delivery of a puzzle. We open the box and find a large, ill-shaped puzzle piece to fit into ourselves and pretend all is well.
Nor do we believe our episodic sourness is acceptable to the group. They, too, want to persuade themselves their dark times and places are few. The laughter and pleasantness they display are taken by us as the entirety of their lives, suggesting they have mastered human existence as we have not.
We are ambivalent about where we went wrong. We want to find the answer but are afraid to get near it. When did our lives turn? How did we get where we are? Better not to ponder such things.
If the silence of these private ideas cannot be escaped, the lack of satisfying answers screams at us.
Too many people sprint into the night away from the sound when walking toward it might calm the terror. The scream is ours, inescapable until we listen and understand the messages.
Greta Garbo might have been a similarly troubled individual. Her dialogue in the 1932 movie Grand Hotel, “I want to be alone,” told much about her-offscreen existence. Garbo retired early and led a life of astonishing solitude and self-willed isolation. Just before her 60th birthday, she told a friend:
In a few days, it will be the anniversary of the sorrow that never leaves me, that will never leave me for the rest of my life.”
Some of the brightest people avoid serious and lengthy books. True, we have more possible activities available to us than ever. Lives can be swept away by an infinity of choices, all leading to fog and forgetting.
Can avoidance of an 800-page masterpiece be due to its soul-searching challenge beyond the lack of time we claim is the barrier? Does such immensity threaten to overwhelm our capacity and inform us what we are not and what we must do to improve?
To do that requires change and the endurance of strange expressions. The faces offer the wordless attempts of friends to discover why we are reading that. An unsettled feeling follows inside, telling us of the possible loss of our tenuous hold on our spot in the social network.
Part of the difficulty of understanding the best books is that they require courage. Many of us read them and make an inward and automatic declaration that the story’s characters made the kinds of mistakes we’d never make.
Some bravery is needed to realize we are no better, no wiser, and have no more forethought than those characters, real or imagined.
As Kafka said,
A book is like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.
If we are to surpass our current life and the troubles it brings, we can do worse than follow Abraham Lincoln’s words:
The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves …
Are we prepared to unmake and recreate the person we are?
If we do, one day, for the first time, it’s possible we’d look into the mirror, say hello to whoever has always been there, and smile.
*The painting after David Foster Wallace’s brief comments is Gustav Dore’s Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Is the creature an angel or God? Scholars of different religions are invited to inform me.
It is followed by The Pensive Reader by Mary Cassatt, 1896, sourced from Wikiart.org/
Next comes a 1925 photo by Arnold Genthe of Greta Garbo from History Daily.
The last image is a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln by George Gray Barnard from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is sourced from Wikimedia.com/
The Lincoln quotation was part of an annual speech made to the assembled Congress on December 1, 1862. His reference is to the ongoing Civil War.