At some point in 1650, the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal noted one of the most counterintuitive aphorisms of all time: “The only cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot be quietly in his room.”
Really? Surely having to be silent in your room must be the beginning of a particularly advanced type of psychological torture? What could be more contrary to the human spirit than having to inhabit four walls when, potentially, there would be an entire planet to explore?
Yet Pascal’s idea usefully challenges one of our most cherished beliefs: that we must always go to new places to hear and discover new and useful things. What if, in fact, there was already a treasure inside us?
What if we had already accumulated enough impressive, calming and interesting experiences in our brain to last 10 lives? What if our real problem is not so much that we are not allowed to go anywhere – but that we do not know how to make the most of what is already at hand?
Being confined to home offers us a number of curious benefits. The first is an encouragement to think. Whatever we like to believe, few of us do much of the kind of lonely, original and bold thinking that can restore our spirit and carry on with our lives. New ideas that we could stumble upon if we traveled more ambitiously around our minds while lying on the couch could threaten our mental status quo.
An original thought could, for example, alienate us from what people around us consider normal. Or it could herald the awareness that we have pursued the wrong approach to an important problem in our life, perhaps for a long time. If we take a new idea seriously, we may have to abandon a relationship, leave a job, abandon a friend, apologize to someone, rethink our sexuality or break a habit.
But a period of silent thought in our room creates an occasion in which the mind can order and understand itself. Fears, resentments and hopes become easier to name; we become less afraid of the content of our minds – and less resentful, calmer and clearer about our direction. We begin, with shaky steps, to get to know each other slightly better.
Another thing we can do in our rooms is to go back to the trips we have already undertaken. This is not a trendy idea. Most of the time, we are strongly encouraged to plan new types of travel experiences. The idea of doing a major reinterpretation of a trip to memory seems a little strange – or simply sad. This is a huge sin. We are careless curators of our past. We push the important scenes that happened to us on the back of the belief of our minds and we don’t expect to see them ever again.
And if we were to alter the prestige hierarchy a little bit and argue that regular immersion in our travel memories could be a critical part of what can sustain us and console us – and, last but not least, is perhaps the cheapest form of entertainment and flexible. We should think that it is equally prestigious to sit at home and reflect on a trip that we once took to an island with our imagination, like trekking on the island with our bulky bodies.
In our neglect of our memories, we are spoiled children, who crush only a part of the pleasure from the experiences and then throw them aside to look for new chills. Part of why we feel the need for so many new experiences may simply be that we are so bad at absorbing what we have had.
To help us focus more on our memories, we don’t need anything technical. We certainly don’t need a camera. There is already one in our minds: it is always on, it includes everything we have ever seen. Huge chunks of experience are still there in our heads, intact and vivid, just waiting for us to ask ourselves some main questions, such as: “Where did we go after landing?” or “How was breakfast?” Our experiences have not disappeared, just because they are no longer taking place right before our eyes. We can stay in touch with so much of what made them enjoyable simply through the art of evocation.
We talk infinitely about virtual reality. However, we don’t need gadgets. We have the best virtual reality machines already in our heads. We can – at this moment – close our eyes, travel and linger among the best and most consoling pieces that improve the life of our past.
We tend to travel because of the underlying belief that, of course, the reality of a scene must be more beautiful than a mental image that we make of it at home. But there is something about the way our minds work that we would do well to study when we regret our inability to go anywhere. There will always be something else that obscures that beautiful destination scene, something so complicated and overwhelming that it somehow undermines the purpose of leaving the house in the first place, namely: ourselves. We have no choice but to take us with us to all the destinations we want to enjoy. And this means carrying so much mental baggage that makes us so intolerably problematic day by day: all anxiety, regret, confusion, guilt, irritability and despair.
None of this self-spot is there when we imagine a trip from home for a few minutes. In the imagination, we can enjoy unspoiled views. But there, at the foot of the golden temple or high on the pine-covered mountain, we find ourselves discovering that there are so many “us” who intrude on our views.
There is a tragicomic irony at work: the vast work of taking us physically to a place does not necessarily bring us closer to the essence of what we seek. As we should remind ourselves, we could already enjoy the best that any place can offer us simply by thinking about it.
Let’s move on to another Frenchman with a comparable basic philosophy. In the spring of 1790, a 27-year-old writer called Xavier de Maistre closed himself at home and decided to study the wonders and beauty of what was closest to him, giving the right to what he had seen A trip around my room.
The book is a fascinating story of shaggy dogs. De Maistre closes the door and turns into a pink and blue pajamas. Without needing to pack a suitcase, he “travels” to the sofa, which he observes with new eyes and appreciates again. Admire his elegant feet and remember the pleasant hours he spent between his cushions, dreaming of professional success and love.
Subsequently, de Maistre sees his bed. Using the perspective of a traveler, learn also to enhance this piece of furniture. He feels grateful for the pleasant nights he spent there and is proud that his sheets are almost the same as his pajamas. “I recommend to every man who is able to get pink and white bedding,” he writes, as these are colors that induce calm and pleasant dreams in the fragile sleeper.
However playful, De Maistre’s work is inspired by a profound intuition: that the pleasure we find in new places perhaps depends more on the mentality with which we travel than on the destination. If only we could apply a simliar mentality to our immediate rooms and neighborhoods, we might find that these places are no less fascinating than foreign lands.
So what is the traveler’s mentality? Receptivity, appreciation and gratitude could be its main characteristics. And above all, this mentality does not need to wait for a distant journey to be deployed.
A walk is the smallest type of journey we can ever undertake. It is found in relation to a typical holiday like a bonsai tree does in a forest. But even if it’s just an eight-minute interval around the block or a few moments in a nearby park, a walk is already a journey in which there are many of the biggest themes of the trip.
On such a walk we could see a flower. It is extremely rare to appropriate flowers when one can take off at any time on another continent. There are so many bigger and bigger things to worry about than these delicately carved small manifestations of nature. However, it is unusual to be left completely indifferent by flowers when the world has shrunk dramatically and there is global sadness in the air. Flowers no longer seem like a small distraction from a powerful destiny, but a real pleasure among a litany of problems, a small resting place for hope in a sea of difficulty.
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Or we could, in a local walk, spot a small animal: a duck or a hedgehog. His life continues completely unaware of ours. It is entirely dedicated to its purposes. The habits of its species have not changed for centuries. We could look at it carefully but it doesn’t seem the least curiosity about who we are; from his point of view, we are absorbed in the immense void of unknowable things. A duck will take a piece of bread willingly from a criminal as well as from a court judge, from a billionaire or from a bankrupt criminal; our individuality is suspended and, on certain days, it can be a huge relief.
During our walk around the block, the issues with which we had lost touch – childhood, a strange dream we had, a friend we hadn’t seen for years, a big task that we had always said to undertake – fluctuate Attention . In physical terms, we are almost not going any distance, but we are going through acres of mental territory.
Shortly thereafter, we are back home. Nobody missed us, or perhaps even noticed that we were out. Yet we are slightly different: a slightly more complete, more visionary, courageous and imaginative version of the person we knew to be before leaving wisely for a modest journey.
One day we will recover our freedoms. The world will be ours to wander once again. But during our collective boundaries, apart from the obvious inconveniences, we may end up guarding part of what is granted to us when we lose our usual freedoms. It is no coincidence that many of the world’s greatest thinkers have spent unusual amounts of time alone in their rooms. Silence offers us the opportunity to appreciate very much what we generally see without noticing it correctly; and to understand what we have tried but not yet adequately elaborated.
At the moment, not only have we been locked up; we have also been granted the privilege of being able to travel to a number of unknown internal continents, sometimes daunting but essentially wonderful.
Alain de Botton is the author of books including The Art of Travel (2002) and more recently The School of Life (both Hamish Hamilton)
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