At the start of a new school year I frequently get invited to speak to the incoming freshmen of the University. I usually choose to speak about the intellectual life–thinking, reading, writing–because I am convinced that it is what they most need and what will most help them in this new stage of their lives.
I always begin my talk by asking what they think the most important problem for young people is. The responses tend to be: superficiality, comfort, fear of thinking, running away from commitment, living only for today, excessive technologization, liking noise, dependence on fashion and trends, and other similar responses. All of these responses of the young people seem to be right on to me, but I like to add that, if we think more radically, if we go more to the root of things, the most pressing problems for the young people that are listening to me is almost always a painful sensation of solitude, which frequently goes hand in hand with a painful chronic boredom.
Nearly all the young people in my audience concur with my diagnosis–at least they nod their heads in silence, and their eyes light up when they listen to me–because it nearly always fits with their personal experience, and also because that radical explanation is able to explain other factors that they had spoken about before: how many young people connect themselves to a machine so they don’t have to talk with the person next to them, or who get drunk–they say–in order to shed inhibitions and be able to have fun! Perhaps what most drew my attention is that frequently, on finishing my talk, a professor who heard me will approach and quietly tell me that solitude and boredom are not just problems for young people, but that above all–at least that’s how the professor feels–it is a problem for adults.
In the lovely PowerPoint presentation that María Guibert prepared to accompany my talk, the affirmation about boredom is illustrated with the photograph of an old Dalmatian dog ensconced on a chair without its stuffing, as though it were sick of watching television. It is a very graphic illustration of what happens to so many people, although perhaps the best part is the quotation from Erasmus of Rotterdam at the bottom of the image: “He who knows the art of living with himself does not know what boredom is”. Indeed, the secret for completely eliminating from our lives the specter of boredom is the cultivation of inner vitality, the discovery of the creative potential of thought, of reading, of writing what we carry in our imaginations and hearts.
But to illustrate this I often use a Mafalda comic strip, wherein she asks Miguelito if he isn’t outraged by a sign that says “Keep off the grass”, to which Miguelito replies, “No, why should it? I have my own inner lawn”.
This is the point, then: we must cultivate our interiority, with freedom, with passion, thinking for ourselves and running our own risks. Only in this way will we overcome fashions, the oppressive dominant trends in our consumerist culture, which blocks thought–“Thinking makes you crazy” is a popular saying among the youth–and impedes reading, all of which will turn us, if we let it, into superficial beings that are satisfied with being entertained by the mediocrity of what comes through TV and gaming screens.
It is often said that mobile phones, machines in general, bring us closer to those who are far off and separate us from those who we have near. Perhaps this is why I loved the humorous sign in a Latin-American bar, “We don’t have wifi, talk to each other”. Many times this is how it is: technology masks our own loneliness. A growing problem–both for young people and, especially, for many adults–is a terrible loneliness that arises from isolation, from closing in upon oneself, perhaps as a consequence of wounds received from others, or simply because of the passing of time. For example, those of us who have reached a certain age note with nostalgia that those whom we have most loved have died and are no longer at our sides.
Opening ourselves to other makes us vulnerable. Since I don’t want to suffer any more–we say more or less consciously–I prefer to not get to know new people, not to make new friends, not to love again: it’s enough for me to enclose myself in my armor and resist the buffeting of loneliness by remembering the enjoyable moments of my life in years past. This is very understandable, but it is a trap, a deceitful reasoning: closing in upon oneself, affective isolation, hurts us, causes us harm, because human beings are made to love and feel ourselves loved.
If we find ourselves alone or bored it means that something within is not right: we have not been cultivating our intellectual life–to think about what we live, to say what we think, to live what we say–or else we have given up on loving others. But in both activities–enriching our heads and enlarging our hearts–there is always time to start over again. The important thing is not to settle for solitude, nor for boredom.
Pamplona, August 29, 2014