The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” It was a simple and profound thought about the nature of boredom, self-awareness, and our endless capacity to distract ourselves with dumb shit.
Try it: sit in a quiet room with no distractions — no phone, no music, no television or podcasts or video games — and do nothing for twenty minutes. Don’t sing. Don’t dance. Don’t see how many push-ups you can do or trim your toenails or count the spackle on the ceiling. Just sit and be alone with your own mind.
Unless you’re experienced with meditation, chances are you would have a hard time doing this. Or, at least, it would be incredibly unpleasant and/or boring for you.
In fact, psychologists have tested this a number of times, and surprise, surprise… people really don’t like doing it. In one experiment, roughly half of a group disliked it so much that they chose to receive an electric shock in order to get out of it and exit the room early.
The Fear of Sitting Alone in a Quiet Room
What is it about sitting alone with our own thoughts that causes us to become so uncomfortable?
Pascal seemed to believe that our inability to allow ourselves to be bored — i.e., our constant need for stimulation and distraction — causes us to do a lot of stupid and harmful things, both to ourselves and others.
But there’s also a slightly deeper, more subtle explanation. There are certain characteristics of our thoughts and feelings that we don’t like about ourselves. Therefore, we likely feel a need to distract ourselves from ourselves in proportion to all of the unsavory stuff rattling around between our ears.
The more we deny or reject our internal world, the more we compulsively look for external things to occupy our attention.
It’s this self-rejection that leads to self-destructive behaviors, thrill-seeking, and addiction. And some of us apparently are so nonplussed with ourselves that we’d rather experience the external pain of electrocution than the internal pain of our own self-reflection.