Posted by: Corri van de Stege | March 29, 2010

Solitude and silence

In The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley tackles a number of happiness-related subjects: strategies for achieving happiness, relationships in a modern and fast moving world, consumption, perpetual youth, fear and anxiety.  Although these don’t seem to have to do much with happiness at first sight, it is very difficult to define happiness without some recourse to what it is not, or what it relates to.

Last night I wandered through the chapter ‘The Assault on Detachment’, in which Foley talks about how difficult it is to switch off in the modern world: wherever we go, whatever we do, we are simultaneously assaulted by numerous extraneous noises and invasions of our privacy:

 ‘Anyone doing fewer than three things at once is not living to the full, failing to take advantage of the age of simultaneous multiple distractions and permanent multiple connexity – the multitasking, hyperlinked, immersive network world.

Our blackberries beep, our inboxes chime when new messages pour in, the television is on while we read the newspaper, and we worry about our jobs, travel arrangements, etc whilst we listen to partners, children and try and work out what we will eat tonight.  Foley provides a number of much more interesting examples.   He writes

‘… it is becoming impossible to avoid distraction.  The very concepts of separation and boundaries are becoming obsolete.  Airports, railway stations, office blocks, hotels and hospitals have become mini-cities with large, bright, high-celinged, open-plan areas offering a distracting range of products and services.’

But what about wanting to switch off, to be alone, can we still do that?  I have had so much to do these last three months that when today I find myself behind my computer and realise that I have drafted all the reports I am working on, have carried out all the necessary interviews and that there is not actually another project waiting in the wings to be taken forward immediately, I am at a bit of a loss.  This is what I have dreamt of these last months: not being under pressure to deliver something within the next half hour or  day, or week or month that is actually quite demanding.  Not having boss, clients or potential clients coming back with critique or with further demands.  I sit and don’t quite know how to take it, what to do.  Should I be writing bids, so some client research, pretend that I am busy?  I’ve got to write or do something.  So I write this piece for my blog.

The serious seeker of detachment will have to embrace the Holy Trinity of Ss – Solitude, Stillness and Silence – and reject the new religion of Commotionism, which believes that the meaning of life is constant company, movement and noise…{and that]… solitude, stillness and silence are death.’ (p.103).

Perhaps it is time to just let stillness and silence in for a bit and not feel too uneasy about doing ‘nothing’.  Soon it will all start again, and if it does not, then perhaps solitude will help to move along some more writing.



  1. I have the hardest time giving myself permission to do nothing. But when I do (and it is too rare), I feel so rewarded. I always say it is good for the soul to let go of all of the distraction and just do one thing at a time!

  2. It sounds a fascinating read – you have written a very informative review here. Being retired, I find it easier to relax a little, and even have whole days without too much on. Its bliss to have more time for reading.

  3. Kathleen – In my case my calvinistic background simply won’t let me indulge in ‘doing nothing’ and so I go around apologising rather than simply letting go. I think Foley is right rubbing our noses into it. Other chapters in the book are also enlightening.
    Tom: I envy you! I’m taking this week off and have decided not to go anywhere, not to put myself under any pressure of having to be on time, finish something or meet someone. So I’ll just read when I feel like it. Bliss! That must be like retirement.

  4. Thanks for this review – I think it is a must read for me. It is something I have been thinking and worrying a bit about for some time. My daughter is the ultimate multi-tasker and it drives me mad. The phone is on 24/7 (all night, that is) in case someone texts her. During homework, she is texting, instant messaging on computer chat, messaging on facebook, and listening to music. It has got to be doing something terrible to her brain, but I can’t convince her of it.
    I love that “holy trinity of s” concept… I am thinking that instead of going to LA this summer, I should head to northern Minnesota and St. John’s Abby for a personal retreat. Reading this book might just put me over the edge.
    – I am glad you are taking the week to relax!

  5. qugrainne – yes, the three s’s – I am trying hard this week, but time just seems to fly away!

  6. Drat…. book is not available yet in US. I will have to wait, and continue to murmur Solitude, Stillness, and Silence to myself.

  7. I’ve added this book to my list of ones to read. I’ve really been coming to the conclusion over the last year or so that modern life is absurd. That’s not to say that we need to ditch everything. We need to be careful not to see the past through rose-tinted spectacles. But in the name of progress we also seem to be regressing a lot – mental health issues being one of them.

    If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend ‘A Book of Silence’ by Sara Maitland. Wonderful. And reassuring to know that seeking silence and solitude is not a sign that I’m a miserable so and so! I wrote a post about it on my personal blog

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