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Mon 26 October 2020
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John Mitchinson explores how being quiet and listening might help us to adjust to the isolation imposed on us by the Coronavirus – and beyond.

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In these times of social distancing and self-imposed isolation, it has become fashionable to quote the 17th Century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.”

This tweet-friendly nugget of wisdom is drawn from his Pensées, a posthumously published collection of notes aimed at defending Christianity – a faith with which he had a complicated relationship.

It’s worth adding some context. Pascal had a such a low opinion of human nature that he believed if we did manage to stay in our rooms we would end up no happier. Further on in the same passage, he concludes that the “very real reason” for our discontent is “the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely”. Understandably, this stark conclusion tends to be quoted less often by those seeking to spread wisdom and solace in our current predicament.  

Leaving Pascal’s pessimism aside, solitude and isolation must surely have some upsides? What of people who voluntarily self-isolate? There’s a long history of those who lock themselves away to better focus on their inner lives. In the 13th Century, England boasted over 200 anchorites (many of them women) who were enclosed in locked cells, their funeral rites performed and their needs (food and waste collection) provided for by the parish. We tend to dwell on the more grotesque elements of this self-sacrifice – some used spoons to slowly dig their own graves – rather than the benefits.

One of the most famous, Julian of Norwich (1342 – c.1416) produced the earliest surviving book written by a woman in the English language – Revelations of Divine Love – her account of and reflections on the 16 visions she had while she believed herself to be dying. One of her most famous passages concerns a hazelnut: “He shewed a little thing, the quantitie of a hasel-nutt, lying the palme of my hand, as me seemed; and it was as round as a ball. I looked theron with the eie of my understanding, and thought, “What may this be?” and it was answered generallie thus: ‘It is all that is made.’

This finding of comfort and deeper meaning in the small and the domestic has definite resonance for those of us trying to adapt to a life indoors. It is worth remarking that the Ancrene Wisse – the 13th Century instruction manual for anchoresses – strongly recommended keeping a cat for companionship.

Seven centuries later, the German-American theologian and existentialist Paul Tillich made an important distinction of which Julian would have surely approved: “Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word, loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word, solitude to express the glory of being alone.”

This glory may be hard won for many of us. We’re not used to extended periods of solitude and our first instinct is to fill it with activity and noise. Social media has many virtues but, above all else, it requires us to make noise: to be clever or angry or funny. This, in turn, creates its own anxieties (as Pascal would no doubt have pointed out). It is an addictive feedback loop that all too often leaves us feeling dissatisfied and inadequate.

The great gift that the mystics discovered – and perhaps the thing that Pascal was hinting at – was and remains free to everyone: silence, which isn’t just the absence of speech. It is about listening.

This has been packaged and commodified in recent times as ‘mindfulness’ but there is no right way to be silent – that’s what makes it so valuable. In her profound and useful book, Silence: A User’s Guide, the modern mystic and radical Maggie Ross writes: “Sit in your cell (the cell of your heart, if not an actual hermitage) and your cell will teach you everything.”

It was a lesson exemplified by the American poet Emily Dickinson, who lived a life of solitude and produced almost 1,800 poems, most of which were never published in her lifetime (“publication is the auction of the mind” she once wrote). And yet “through the solitary prowess of a Silent Life” she found a way to write some of the greatest poetry of the 19th Century – a process she would call in a late poem “a soul admitted to itself – Finite infinity”.

There’s a liberating message in this for all of us, if we disengage ourselves from the dopamine hits of shares and likes and lifestyle tips and just be quiet. Who knows what we may find? 

As another great 19th Century American, Nathaniel Hawthorne, advised: “Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.


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