This is definitely a trend, at least among British writers of a certain era…

From “Why I Write,” by George Orwell:

I was the middle child of three, but there was a gap of five years on either side, and I barely saw my father before I was eight. For this and other reasons I was somewhat lonely, and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays. I had the lonely child’s habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons, and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life. Nevertheless the volume of serious–i.e., seriously intended–writing which I produced all through my childhood and boyhood would not amount to half a dozen pages…

…However, thoughout this time I did in a sense engage in literary acitivites…for fifteen years or more, I was carrying out a literary exercise…this was the making up of a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind. I believe this is a common habit of children and adolescents. As a very small child I used to imagine that I was, say, Robin Hood, and picture myself as the hero of thrilling adventures, but quite soon my ‘story’ ceased to be narcissistic in a crude way and became more and more a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw. For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf’, etc etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside. The ‘story’ must, I suppose, have reflected the styles of the various writers I admired at different ages, but so far as I remember it always had the same meticulous descriptive quality.”

September 30, 2010

“To be close to people, but alone, and suddenly to feel with extraordinary force these woods, these empty wet branches against the gray sky, all the things that are stifled by the presence of people coming to life, living their own independent existence, every minute whole, not fragmented.”

–Father Alexander Schmemann, December 12, 1973

“Unlike pleasureable activities, which are relatively easy to engage in (like going out to dinner), gratifying activities are the application of one’s unique strengths and so are more difficult to come by (like cooking a gourmet meal at home).”

“Another important skill parents teach children is how to deal with with free time and solitude in a way that promotes fulfillment and flow rather than loneliness and depression. Many studies have shown that people are more likely to be depressed when they are alone; this is thought to be because without other people around to interact with, those who lack internal motivation lose the external sense of motivation and goals other people provide them. As their mind loses its sense of purpose and begins to focus on thoughts that make them anxious, people often seek out stimulation that will screen out the anxiety-producing thoughts–such as having a drink or turning on the television.”

“Free time should be meaningful–either work or play, but not neither.”

From “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness,” by Christine Carter Berkeley.

I’m not a believer in happiness for its own sake (I prefer the deeper concept of joy), but I do think these quotes have something interesting to say about learning to use one’s time. It occurs to me that the average student in a college prep high school program is being carried along at a pace which atrophies the ability to creatively regulate its use. Thus, such students are being trained to boredom and helplessness in the absence of an external structure. This makes them more vulnerable to anxiety and the need to find stimulation that will mitigate that anxiety. (In addition to drinks or television, there are peers, the internet, and most combinations thereof.) It’s not a matter of whether such students can do rigorous work. They may even wish, in some instances, to take deeper and more challenging classes. It’s a matter of such work having a purpose beyond achievement for its own sake.

Rushing conclusions

May 22, 2010

A snippet of conversation from Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury:


“Oh, but we’ve plenty of off-hours.”

“Off-hours, yes. But time to think? If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the four-wall television. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly, to its own conclusions. Your mind hasn’t time to protest,’What nonsense!'”

The details are a little dated, but the idea of rushing conclusions in Fahrenheit 451 is very relevant. Bradbury could blame it on the television, but we know better now. With the internet, we have lots of choices and can even contribute our own content, but what do we use it for? To fashion ourselves into mini-celebrities! And if we do use self-control (or just exhaustion) to opt out, society insinuates that we are being left behind. So, our whole society rushes conclusions, to the point where you rush along with it voluntarily. This self-policing aspects is one of the main points of Fahrenheit 451.

On dependence

May 14, 2010

I really like Father Alexander Schmemann, so perhaps I should start with a more positive quote of his, but I think we sometimes so greatly misunderstand the meaning of Christian community that a negative quote might clear the air:

“Today, after Matins, a talk…with one of our seminarians. Pathological fear of not being popular, of falling out of the social micro-organism to which one belongs. How much in American depends on pseudo-friendship, pseudo-interest in each other, on a sort of ritual, symbolical unity. All of it comes from a pathological fear of being alone, even for a short time. There is so little inner life in people in these times. It is stifled by this necessity to be “with it.” And when an inner life manages to break through, man is seized by total panic and rushes to some analyst…The reason for it is pursuit from childhood of an adjusted life…I often ask myself…: Why is there so much tension at the seminary? The answer is simple, I think. Because everyone lives depending on each other. They think it’s Christian love. But it’s neither Christian, nor love. It is a selfish concern and fear about one’s self; a fear of not having a witness in the other, a confirmation of one’s own existence.”

The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, February 18, 1982

“For one thing, the pupil is now far more defenceless in the hands of his teachers. He comes increasingly from businessmen’s flats or workmen’s cottages in which there are few books or none. He has hardly ever been alone. The educational machine seizes him very early and organizes his whole life, to the exclusion of all unsuperintended solitude or leisure. The hours of unsponsored, uninspected, perhaps even forbidden reading, the rambling, and the “long, long thoughts” in which those of luckier generations first discovered literature and nature and themselves are a thing of the past. If a Traherne or a Wordsworth were born today he would be “cured” before he was twelve.”

–C.S. Lewis, “Lilies that Fester”

The list of things that prevent solitude is growing.

“My father and mother were dead, and I used to wonder what sort of people they had been. In solitude I used to wander about the garden, alternately collecting birds’ eggs and meditating on the flight of time. If I may judge by my own recollections, the important and formative impressions of childhood rise to consciousness only in fugitive moments in the midst of childish occupations, and are never mentioned to adults. I think periods of browsing during which no occupation is imposed from without are important in youth because they give time for the formation of these apparently fugitive but really vital impressions.”

“Throughout the greater part of my childhood, the more important hours of my day were those that I spent alone in the garden, and the most vivid part of my existence was solitary, I seldom mentioned my more serious thoughts to others, and when I did, I regretted it.”
–Bertrand Russell