We are driving up to Hull today. What to do on the way…?
Filling the Void
The young are bound by age restrictions when it comes to gambling, drugs or booze, though there are no such restrictions for Facebook, Twitter and video games – which are, of course, highly addictive too.
These addictions are having a disastrous effect on our young. It has been shown that the more youngsters look at Facebook, the more depressed they are likely to be. When will the young find the time to form proper non-Facebook friendships and talk properly? How can they find the time to read the likes of Middlemarch or write poetry or pray? Since they don’t spend time developing lasting relationships with real people, what will happen when they feel lonely – will they find comfort in Facebook? When will they find time to talk to the old? Or, as delayed gratification is today a rarity, when will they become expert in something? There are apps for every darn thing these days but none for the tackling the roots of loneliness: forming deep loving relationships or finding real job satisfaction takes effort.
Today, the number of youngsters on anti-depressants and committing suicide is spiralling upwards. As machines go faster and faster and devour our attention, and as families disconnect, people are growing ever more isolated and lonely. And some of the unlikeliest people grow miserable and isolated.
For loneliness is one of the miseries of our time and its blight stretches its tentacles throughout society. A picture taken years ago shows Baroness Thatcher hunched on a bench outside the House of Lords three hours before the doors opened. It was said that, after she was defenestrated as PM, she never knew another day of happiness. When the caravan stopped, as stop it always does, she was desperately lonely.
Seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about loneliness in his Pensées. Cheerful old soul that he was (but a very perceptive one), he claims that humankind seeks to be busy to avoid facing the reality that life always ends in sickness and death.
Pascal tells us that busyness as an end in itself seems to be the key to much human activity from stamp collecting to buying houses to playing sport. Take “the chase” (hunting). Pascal claims that if the hunter were to be given the quarry before the chase, he would not thank you; if the gambler were to be given his winnings before the game is played, he would be angered. The business of travelling helps us forget the misery of the end game.
When American humourist Dorothy Parker was writing Hollywood film scripts, producer Cecil B. DeMille asked why her films always ended unhappily? “Because it’s true to life,” she replied. “Out of the 18 billion people born since Adam, not a single one has ever had a happy ending!”
Pascal reminds us that there is nothing so insufferable for man than to be completely at rest, he gets bored and welcomes strife. “All troubles arise,” he claims, “because of man’s inability to sit quietly with his own company in his own room.”
So Pascal would understand modern addictions: he knew why people leave their mobiles on the dinner table; they are waiting for someone – anyone – to ring with an “important” message, all to assuage loneliness.
But much activity is empty vanity. Malcolm Muggeridge called one of his autobiographies Chronicles of Wasted Time, and Prime Minister Balfour said: “Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all.” Anyone with a modicum of self-awareness must agree with these old saws, yet few dare to dwell on it because we want to kid ourselves that the trivia we are working on really matters. In this often joyless universe, we need such assurances or we’d go potty. But when politicians talk of their “legacy”, I recall that long-serving deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine admitting that most of the things he has done will be forgotten; he’ll be remembered only for the trees he carefully plants on his estate.
To the Ends of the Earth
I’ll bet it was fear of loneliness that motivated explorers rather than practising their navigational skills. After all, when Christopher Columbus sailed away on Santa Maria he had no idea where he was going, when he reached America he had no idea where he was, and when he got back, he had no idea where he had been. But still he went!
And speed doesn’t help. I read somewhere that when the great explorer Sir Richard Burton (not the actor) sought the source of the Nile, he went at such a pace that soon his porters firmly refused to budge. When he angrily commanded them to move, the headman answered: “We have walked fast for three days, Master; we are waiting for our souls to catch up.”
No Time to be Idle
Jane and I don’t have much time to be lonely. We are privileged to look after a never-ending series of grandchildren, and are in fact so busy we are tempted to add the following message to our answerphone:
“Thank you for ringing Tom and Jane. Press one for babysitting services, two for marriage advice, three for money. Your call will be answered shortly. Please do not hang up for your call is very important to us. Please note that this call may be recorded for training purposes.”
It’s interesting that for much of history, idleness was the hallmark of wealth and class. Beyond needlework and water colouring, classy people didn’t work much but spent time having tea with friends and going to concerts. When Lady Violet Bonham Carter asked her nanny in the early 1900s what life would be like when she grew up, she received this reply: “Until you are 18, you will do lessons. And after 18 you will do nothing.”
That was then, and it sounds very lonely. But I wonder what Pascal would make of our lives today?