The soul’s at fault, which ne’er escapes itself.
One of the great scourges of our time is preoccupation. Every day, precious time is lost in ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Our phones buzz with new calls, impatient texts, and pressing alerts about various and sundry facts like how far we’ve walked, the score of the game, and the timing of our next doctor’s appointment. Our schedules are designed to make us masters of efficiency. We pride ourselves on multitasking as we divide our attention between everything while truly attending to nothing. In making everything a priority we have, in effect, made nothing a priority. Eternal moments with God, our family and our friends—the very stuff of eulogy—are lost to meaningless and forgettable distraction.
In his masterwork Pensées, Blaise Pascal observed, “All the problems of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” And Pope Benedict XVI astutely diagnosed, “We are no longer able to hear God . . . there are too many frequencies filling our ears.”
So how do we change this?
We need to be alone and we need to be quiet.
We need solitude.
French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote about this in his essay Of Solitude. The problem with solitude, as Montaigne puts it, is that we do it all wrong. First, we design a schedule that affords no room for solitude. This is our modern conundrum and it is of our own making. We are too stressed. We are overcommitted. We are constantly surrounded by others. We attend too little to our health and our soul. Next, when we squeeze in a respite from all of our cares and commitments, we are incapable of turning them off. As Montaigne would write,
By getting rid of the court and the market place we do not get rid of the principal worries of our life. Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us when we change our country. They often follow us even into the cloisters and the schools of philosophy. Neither deserts, nor rocky caves, nor hair shirts, nor fastings will free us of them. Someone said to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels. “I should think not,” he said; “he took himself along with him.”
Montaigne continues by quoting Horace, the Roman lyric poet,
Reason and sense remove anxiety,
Not villas that look out upon the sea.
Behind the horseman sits black care.
So how do we change this? Montaigne says something that runs counter to the culture of his time and especially the culture of our time. We must be less ambitious. We must surrender the ceaseless pursuit of personal glory.
The humor most directly opposite to retirement is ambition. Glory and repose are things that cannot lodge in the same dwelling. As far as I can see, these men have only their arms and legs outside the crowd; their souls, their intentions, are more than ever in the thick of it.
And so, a part of us must walk away. We can aspire and achieve, but not to our soul’s own destruction. We must, like Mary, choose the better part. We should silence our phones, turn off the television, simplify our schedules, and be here now. It’s not that hard. We have just convinced ourselves that it is.
Montaigne goes on,
Abandon with the other pleasures that which comes from the approbation of others; and as for your knowledge and ability, don’t worry, it will not lose its effect if it makes you yourself a better man. . . . We must do like the animals that rub out their tracks at the entrance to their lairs. Seek no longer that the world should speak of you, but how you should speak to yourself.
Will it be difficult? Of course it will be. To find true solitude, to cultivate meaningful Christ-centered interiority, is among the most challenging of disciplines. After all, we are changing what has been a terrible habit practiced for years and enabled (if not rewarded) by our entire culture. But Montaigne concludes with these words of encouragement:
Retire into yourself, but first prepare to receive yourself there; it would be madness to trust in yourself if you do not know how to govern yourself.
Aren’t you ready to be less preoccupied?
Aren’t you ready for true solitude?