For increasing numbers of people today life can seem relentlessly challenging, confusing, raucous, fast and joyless. I am sure we all experience those moments where reality seems so sterile and engineered that it becomes a struggle to relax, idle the time of day in quiet reflection, or simply stand and stare in awe at some natural wonder. For some, including a majority of young people, not to be incessantly checking their current social status on a screen is unthinkable. Yet psychologists are now concerned that this altered state slowly corrodes any capacity to appreciate ambient aesthetics or sensations — potentially leading to disquiet, and ennui regarding the future, that can be spiritually destructive.
Naturally, in the process of coping with life’s complications, we often opt to leave out, or delay, perhaps fleetingly, stuff that might otherwise keep us engaged, happy and content. This is often done in an attempt to please others, avoid unnecessary quarrels, or ward off issues that are disturbing. It might be that we defer going to see a movie in order to stay at work and complete a task with the team. Or we might go along with the desires of our partner to have a night out on the town, rather than tinkering around at home.
In the end, though, we suffer if these emotional ellipses are used too much merely to help us get through the day. Their loss can be enervating. Eventually it wears us down. Holding back from being authentic, by thinking and acting in ways that do not make sense, do not feel sincere, fail to give us real joy, and do not revitalise our sense of well-being, is harmful to our physical health, state of mind, and our relations with family and friends. It also steels us in ways that must eventually erode our humanity — particularly our ability to empathise and to show compassion.
Avoiding solitude has become a modern quest. Held to be synonymous with loneliness by many, it has been given a bad press. Our ability to be free from associative distractions is one of the most precious gifts we have. Avoiding isolation means we risk drowning in the clamour of everyone else’s existence, without respite. When we allow this there is no room for self-examination, no chance to be alone with ourselves, to contemplate, to be creative, to listen to what moves in our hearts, and to reflect deeply on our affiliation with nature. There are numerous benefits to spending time alone. Used judiciously, solitude advances our emotional and spiritual states and matures human consciousness.
Likewise, daydreaming is commonly considered to be an extravagance we can ill-afford. Workers caught in a state of reverie are often reprimanded for wasting time. Little or no thought is given to the imaginative value that detachment from our direct surroundings can bring. Daydreaming allows us the chance to blur and escape reality — if only for a few moments — and to enter a state where congenial thoughts and possibilities are imagined and constraints fade away. This restores hope and nurtures optimism — qualities that are badly needed in a society depleted by the twin deities of mammon and materialism.
Shunning optimism is to live in a world of anxiety and pain by choice. Lacking any shred of hope, mutuality, or acts of benevolence, those inhabiting a world without optimism live in constant dread, invariably ascribing malicious motives to others and interpreting every twist and turn in the worst possible light. In this amazing world of ours, that generations before us helped shape, the confidence that comes from knowing that together we can cultivate still better futures is absolutely crucial. Without hope the truth will always appear dark and forbidding. On the other hand, habitual disassociation of our internal moods from external factors, no matter how oppressive, is also unwise. Recent research suggests that tempering a perpetually cheery disposition with a small dose of realism, or possibly even pessimism, might be the best way to grow resilience as we learn how to cope with the pressures of a society in transition.
In the cut and thrust world of competition based on scarcity, kindness is often considered an old-fashioned trait. A weakness rather than an instinctual quality requiring strength and courage. This is to be lamented. For without acts of generosity we are nothing more than sterile automata in a progressively inhospitable land. Our humanity shrinks when we shun love and kindness. Yet increasingly, or so it seems, a sense of entitlement gives those who claim to lead the option to act selfishly, cruelly, without one iota of compassion. Showing generosity, affection, warmth, and a concern for others, is a sign we comprehend there is more to life than money, work and hedonistic pleasures.
Silence is the canvas on which the variegated sounds of nature and the miracle of music emerge. In history silence was an important factor in many cultural rituals. But today there is no silence — our environment is contaminated by the urban racket of human activity and the pervasive hum of electrical energy. It is not simply that we have become frightened of silence, it is that we feel compelled to fill any void with extraneous sound — even pollution of the most prosaic kind. These days even the stillness and quiet of the night succumbs to the drone of distant traffic. If we avoid silence, allowing it to be drowned out by the din of our industrial existence, we will eventually become deaf to the quiet within — that divine mind of inner silence.
The sensory and emotional experience of pain is a symptom of an underlying condition. A life full of pain can be unbearable, while a life without pain is a life of numb blandness. Yet our contemporary obsession with the use of chemicals to eliminate, or at least alleviate, pain threatens any capacity to uncover the true causes of depression and sickness. Not all pain can be medicated. Using packs of pills to avoid pain allows us to bypass an important truth: the pain we suffer is not always a pathology; it can result from one or more exterior conditions: namely the way we feel and are treated by others. Pain is often a sign that our instinctive psychological needs are not being met. In that context, it is useful to reframe pain as a form of grief — for ourselves, our communities, and for the spiritual deterioration of the global technocracy into which we are born. Human beings have an innate need to be loved and to feel valued. If we sense these factors are missing, feel unduly constrained or manipulated, are filled with despair about the future, or are unable to find real meaning in how we choose to spend our time — whether that be work of play — we will surrender far more readily to depression and disease. The solution is to reconnect with our most basic needs that are not being sufficiently met within the commotion of modern life: a sense of community, of connectedness and being valued, true purpose, appreciation, and control over who we are and what we do.
One of the most disturbing trends of our time is the avoidance of compassion. Not in any individual sense, of course, but in the caring nature we are prepared to share with others as members of a single human family. For some reason, we downplay the importance of empathy and affiliation, preferring to value and reward more alpha male characteristics in a society punctuated by resolute metaphors — such as fierce competition, delivering the goods, mean business, dead wood, get the axe, sink or swim, buckle down, punch above one’s weight, hard cash, shape up, acid test, and tough love. In a commercially-orientated civilisation, caring for others has become optional, and conditional. Acts of compassion must make us feel good and look good. Above all else, those receiving our consideration must have something we covet in order to gain our attention and assistance. And even then, we will only afford them limited care. Altruism lies dying, and the soul of our humanity along with it.
[i] Depending on their context and placement [in a sentence] ellipses can indicate an unfinished thought, a leading statement, a slight pause, an echoing voice, or a nervous or awkward silence. I extend the meaning here to include emotional ellipses, which I define as qualities we ignore or leave out of our lives but which are essential to our spiritual and emotional well-being.