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#10: Who Are You Avoiding?

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


Other people give us trouble. They do annoying things. They insult us. They not only make us feel inadequate but in the process of doing so trigger disagreeable feelings of envy within us—not that we will admit as much.

Nevertheless, we seek the company of other people. We do this in part because they do things for us. Not only that, but during the intervals when they aren’t annoying us, their company can be quite enjoyable. There is, however, another easily overlooked reason we seek the company of other people: by hanging out with them, we can avoid encountering someone we very much want to avoid. The identity of that person might surprise you. Before I reveal his (or her) identity, though, let me provide some background.

In my book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, I describe the zazen meditation, performed by zen Buddhists. They sit for a period of time in a quiet environment and attempt to empty their mind of all thoughts. If you try this exercise, you will discover how little control you have over the contents of your mind. Ideas, worries, and desires will pop into it, despite your attempts to keep them out. You will likely find this disconcerting. It is, after all, your mind! And yet your mind seems to have a mind of its own!

There is another exercise of self-discovery that you can do. Find a quiet environment with nothing to distract you—no people, no sounds, no words to read, and most of all, no computer! In this exercise, you don’t try to empty your mind of thoughts; you instead try to entertain yourself with them. Many of those who try this exercise quickly discover that their thoughts are oppressively boring and that being alone with them is therefore an intolerable situation. After a few minutes, they will seek external stimulation the way a drowning man seeks the surface of the water. Time to check their e-mail!

If people misbehave, we put them in prison. If they continue to misbehave, we punish them more severely by putting them into solitary confinement. One might reasonably think this practice would be counterproductive: wouldn’t prisoners rather be alone in a cell than share it with someone with criminally antisocial tendencies? It turns out, though, that given a choice between spending time with their own thoughts and spending it with, say, a convicted arsonist or child abuser, most prisoners will unhesitatingly choose the latter.

Indeed, one of the most brutal prisons ever to exist was Eastern State Penitentiary. What made it brutal was its insistence that inmates spend their days alone with their thoughts.

Recently, psychologists did an experiment to explore our aversion to being deprived of external stimulation. In this experiment, subjects were instructed to entertain themselves with their thoughts for a period of between six and fifteen minutes. Most of them found the interval to be oppressively boring.

Then experimenters added an option: subjects could, if they wanted, “entertain” themselves not with their thoughts but by giving themselves mild electric shocks. It turned out that 67% of men and 25% of women preferred shocks to quiet thinking. One man was sufficiently bored that he shocked himself 190 times!

Why don’t we want to be alone with our thoughts? Presumably because it puts us face to face with someone we want desperately to avoid, namely, ourselves.

And why do we want to avoid ourselves? In part because we find ourselves boring—so boring, in fact, that we would rather spend time with someone we regard as somewhat boring than spend that time with ourselves. It would seem to follow that we regard ourselves as one of the most boring people on the planet!

But I suspect that there is another reason we don’t want to spend time with ourselves. Doing so for any length of time reveals things about us that we don’t care to know. Why do we engage in various diversions? To divert ourselves, of course! And what is it we are diverting ourselves from? Apparently ourselves!

In response to this state of affairs, we resort to desperate measures to avoid being alone with our thoughts. We talk to people or send them e-mails or tweets. We surf the internet or relentlessly channel-hop on the television. We drive somewhere to buy something that we don’t really need.

And this desperation is nothing new. Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal observed it all around him and drew the conclusion that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

One important difference between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries, of course, is that thanks to technology, we can, in the privacy of our own chamber, divert ourselves to a degree that Pascal could only have dreamed of. And so we do.

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