The sheer terror of being alone with our thoughts

We spend much of our lives trying to flee the inescapable fact of our own finitude — and it's much easier to do so amid a swarm of buzzing distractions

I recently thought about Pascal while crossing Terminal B of the Philadelphia International Airport.

No, not Pascal the computer programming language. I mean Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician for which the programming language is named.

A line of his came to mind as I looked up in irritation at one of the dozens of televisions blasting CNN throughout the terminal. The racket reminded me of the piped-in music that passersby are subjected to while strolling down the sidewalk outside of strip malls near my home in the Philly suburbs. And the overly loud pop tunes that are regularly played as not-quite-background music in restaurants these days.

Which brings me to Pascal's haunting aphorism: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me."

Pascal is hardly the only one to experience this distinctive form of terror. We live today in a world filled to capacity with audio, visual, and cognitive forms of stimulation and distraction, cramming every nook and cranny of existential space, as if the worst thing the world, the most unendurable torture, would be a few moments of silence left alone with our own thoughts.

This is not hyperbole. The Atlantic recently reported on a remarkable series of experiments in which individuals were asked to sit alone, in silence, and without distraction for up to 15 minutes. Fifty-eight percent of participants rated the task as somewhat or more than somewhat difficult.

In one of the experiments, people were left in a room with a button, and told that pressing it would result in them receiving a painful shock. (The participants were all given a chance before the experiment to shock themselves, so they would know it was painful.) The result? A quarter of the women and two thirds of the men chose to shock themselves rather than sit passively in silence for a quarter of an hour. (One particularly masochistic chap managed to shock himself an astounding 190 times in that 15 minutes.)

Cultural critics sometimes treat the proliferation of distractions in our time as a sign that technology has run amok, turning human beings into stimulation addicts who want and need ever more elaborate, sophisticated, and intense forms of diversions. But I think it's at least as much the reverse: that we're drawn to distractions (even painful and dangerous ones) by a deep-seated anxiety that is coeval with the human condition.

This isn't to deny that this anxiety fluctuates in intensity throughout history and across different cultures. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed, after all, that Americans of the early 19th century were, in comparison to his native France, unusually "anxious in the midst of their prosperity." Even if Americans remain unusually anxious today (for complicated cultural, social, economic, and religious reasons), the anxiety that literally drives us to distraction could still be a permanent human possibility.

Where might it come from? In keeping with our culture's obsession with reductionist Darwinian explanations, the lead researcher quoted in The Atlantic proposes an evolutionary answer: "Mammals have evolved to monitor their environments for dangers and opportunities, and so focusing completely internally for several minutes is unnatural."

Maybe. But as an existentialist, I'm inclined to follow philosopher Martin Heidegger down a different, deeper, and darker path of speculation.

Heidegger proposed that we human beings are uniquely terrified of our own mortality because we're more keenly aware than any other animal of all we have to lose by dying. Each of us inhabits a world overflowing with meaning. We care deeply, almost infinitely, about ourselves, our lives, our loved ones. And the prospect of losing it all — of the world and everything in it winking out of existence when we cease to be — is unspeakably horrifying.

Heidegger also suggested that we spend much of our lives fleeing from the fact of our finitude, throwing ourselves into the world and its concerns, including technological distractions and diversions.

But there are also moments when the truth reveals itself to us. This happens in certain moods, among them anxiety and boredom, when a dawning awareness of the groundlessness of our ordinary, everyday pursuits transfigures the world. When that happens, we grasp as we otherwise rarely do that our lives are lived hovering over an abyss that at some level we know with complete certainty will eventually — perhaps a mere moment from now — swallow us whole, along with everything we've ever cared about.

Nothingness: That is what we're trying to wave away when we reach for our phones in line at the grocery store, and when the obtrusive music played during a meal rescues us from what would otherwise be an excruciatingly awkward silence.

So yes, Wolf Blitzer yammering out of dozens of televisions at high volume is annoying.

But it's also perfectly understandable why we secretly find it comforting.


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