Finding the Space to Quiet Your Mind
Editor’s note: Guest post by Stephen Martin
T he summer when I was 23 did not begin well.
For one thing, I was pretty lost. My longtime girlfriend was moving cross-country for law school, and I didn’t have a clue what my next move would be, except that I wasn’t going with her. For another, I was bordering on broke. My contract work at the nearby university had just ended, and I had not a single job prospect. And yet, 16 years later I look back on that summer as one of the best of my life.
Perhaps the biggest reason why: I gave up the news.
It was a grand summer for news, too. Clinton and Dole duking it out for the presidency, mad cow hysteria in Europe, the Olympics in Atlanta. I knew next to nothing about any of it. With no income, I needed to economize. That meant no cable TV, no Internet, not even a newspaper. I barely knew what was happening across the street, much less around the world. And it didn’t bother me because, after years of faithfully reading papers and magazines, I was just tired of it.
Even back in those pre-Twitter, pre-blog, pre-historic days, you could spend enormous amounts of time consuming news or fretting all day about it, and I’d done a lot of both. But now, accidentally adrift from the headlines, I suddenly had time for other things.
I started hanging out in the university library, wandering the stacks and picking up whatever books caught my eye. I’d meet a buddy for a (very cheap) lunch or play cards or listen to music. I went for long walks. Since I never got a weather forecast, what the heavens might bring was always a surprise too.
Free of the usual distractions, I slowly became more centered. I’d spent the previous year exploring and rejecting a half-dozen potential careers.
In the silence of that summer, though, I finally began to feel a faint sense of purpose – a pull toward writing.
I didn’t know what I wanted to write or for whom. But sitting down and writing, longhand, an essay about a monastery I’d once visited created more satisfaction than I’d felt in months, if not years.
The summer crawled on in slow motion, and I began to feel part of it. I hadn’t really noticed the seasons since I was a kid. But now, I started paying attention to the relative cool of a July morning, the building humidity as noon approached, the sticky air and soothing insect chatter of an August evening. For the first time in a long time, I felt aware.
And as the summer burned toward its conclusion, I became aware of something else as well: I was running out of money.
That’s how I ended up taking a job – yes, this is true – in the news business.
At the end of the summer I moved from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., where news never sleeps. Except for people like me.
One afternoon in early September I mentioned to a buddy that I would be driving to Pennsylvania the next day to see my folks. “But what about the hurricane?” he asked. “What hurricane?” I said, truly befuddled. It was Hurricane Fran, which ended up devastating the city from which I’d just moved and nearly blew my car off the interstate in Maryland. At that point, I decided it might be smart to start following the news again. I haven’t stopped since.
But sometimes I think I should.
News and especially the smart phones, iPads and social media that deliver it to us relentlessly are as addictive as cigarettes and sugar. They bloat you on worthless mental calories that warp your perceptions and pander to your fears. Some will say it’s our responsibility as citizens to follow the news. To some extent it is.
It’s also our responsibility to know who we are, to figure out what inspires us and what to do about it.
Getting there requires serious inner work and reflection and conversations with wise people. That’s hard and sometimes scary work. It also calls for two things in short supply these days – time and silence.
I’m convinced that everyone has a contemplative dimension to their personalities, an innate craving to still our minds – and that we benefit spiritually, emotionally and mentally from heeding that call.
It’s true that finding solitude is tougher than it was in 1996. There’s even more news sources now and the technology for delivering it to us gets more sophisticated by the day.
Still, it is within our power to turn off the phone and TV and computer once we’ve done whatever legitimate work we need to do. Let go of the news for a day or two. Maybe even a week. The longer you can go without knowing what’s going on in the world, the better you’ll feel about it – and yourself. And the latest can’t-miss headline will always be waiting when you come back.
Stephen Martin is a speechwriter and journalist who blogs at www.messyquest.com. His first book The Messy Quest for Meaning, which explores how to find a calling and tap into potential, will be released by Sorin Books in May 2012.