Today is October 19 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you take joy in quiet contemplation?” People who navigate the chaos like nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill battled through depression to appreciate the life’s smaller moments, not just titanic struggles. For two years, Mill suffered a nervous breakdown, a crisis, in his mental history, as he called it. Mill struggled with the self-imposed question “suppose that all of your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” In other words, if you achieved your life goals; could one still be happy? German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once noted “life swings back and forth like a pendulum between pain and boredom.” To find his way out of this ‘pendulum swing between pain and boredom’ Mill discovered the value of reading the poet William Wordsworth.
According to Mill, what made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for his state of mind:
“was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured (sic) by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings, which had no connexion (sic) with struggle or imperfection but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed… I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this…”
In his New York Times editorial “Is a Life Without Struggle Worth Living,” published October 2, 2017, Adam Etinson wrote “I hope and suspect, that Mill is right about this: that we all have the ability to find some durable joy in quietude, normalcy and contemplation. In our personal lives, and in our political lives too, it would be nice if we could escape Schopenhaurer’s pendulum: to simply enjoy where we are, at times; to find some peace in the cessation of motion.” As Etinson noted Wordsworth taught him “to take refuge in a capacity to be moved by beauty-a capacity to take joy in the quiet contemplation of delicate thoughts, sights, sounds, and feelings, not just titanic struggles.”
Mill eventually took joy in the quiet contemplation of delicate thoughts to help him navigate the chaos. Do you? If not, is it because you are uncomfortable spending time alone? In “an October 28, 2019, New York Times article “Why You Should Find Time to Be Alone with Yourself,” Micaela Marini Higgs described the value of spending time alone and wrote: “Being lonely hurts — it can even negatively impact your health. But the mere act of being alone with oneself doesn’t have to be bad, and experts say it can even benefit your social relationships, improve your creativity and confidence, and help you regulate your emotions so that you can better deal with adverse situations.” Thuy-vy Nguyen, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Durham University who studies solitude noted “It’s not that solitude is always good, but it can be good if you’re open to rejecting the idea — common in the west — that time by yourself is always a negative experience you’re being forced into.”
Today’s reflection, like so many other Navigate the Chaos posts, involves nuance. This strategy of quiet contemplation and being by one’s self is in stark contrast to other posts that value the company of others. Both strategies are critical to help you translate dreams into reality. Some days you should be by alone and other days you should surround yourself with people. Understanding this nuance, what some may say is a contradiction of life approaches, is essential for anyone willing to put in the daily grind required to achieve one goal after another.
This nuanced approach has become the foundation for this 365-day reflection resource since some days will require you to do X while others need you to do Y. Reflecting upon when you use one strategy over another is perhaps the greatest gift you can give yourself. To illustrate this necessity to become familiar with the nuances Higgs wrote “We have some evidence to show that valuing solitude doesn’t really hurt your social life, in fact, it might add to it,” she said, pointing out that because solitude helps us regulate our emotions, it can have a calming effect that prepares us to better engage with others.” So, yes, today’s reflection involves quiet contemplation while another day’s question will ask you how often you spend in the company of others. Both are correct, both are necessary, and both will you help you navigate the chaos.
Researchers in the Harvard Business Review published an article "The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time” and noted the importance of getting beyond the noise. Findings from various research projects illustrate how silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our minds to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us now live, work, and lead. “For example, Duke Medical School’s Imke Kirste recently found that silence is associated with the development of new cells in the hippocampus, the key brain region associated with learning and memory. But cultivating silence isn’t just about getting respite from the distractions of office chatter or social media. Real sustained silence, the kind that facilitates clear and creative thinking, quiets inner chatter as well as outer. Silence has actually played an important role for many successful people throughout history.
Author JK Rowling, biographer Walter Isaacson, and psychiatrist Carl Jung have all had disciplined practices for managing the information flow and cultivating periods of deep silence. Ray Dalio, Bill George, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan have also described structured periods of silence as important factors in their success. This kind of silence is about resting the mental reflexes that habitually protect a reputation or promote a point of view. It’s about taking a temporary break from one of life’s most basic responsibilities: Having to think of what to say. Noora Vikman, a Finnish ethnomusicologist who lives in the eastern part of Finland, an area blanketed with quiet lakes and forests knows firsthand the value of silence. In a remote and quiet place, Vikman says, she discovers thoughts and feelings that aren’t audible in her busy daily life. “If you want to know yourself you have to be with yourself, and discuss with yourself, be able to talk with yourself.”
In the poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798,” William Wordsworth noted the benefit of silence centuries earlier when he wrote
“While with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony,
and the deep power of joy,
we see into the life of things.”
How often do you find time to be quiet to see into the life of things?