“Everyone Should Be Quiet Near a Little Stream and Listen”
The everyday magic of noticing in a society consumed by distraction and productivity.
There is no better balm for the soul than quiet (or maybe a giant hug). But in an era of white noise, who has time for the soul when it’s all but impossible to think, feel, see, and listen. We’re tethered to devices, distracted by doomscrolling, in a panic to post, and beeps and buzzes turn us into Pavlov’s dog. Technology may make it is easier to be productive and connect us to a ginormous network of “relationships,” but it does little to help us be present to the relationship we have with ourselves, the one which holds us in relation to life itself.
“Running away from boredom” is what Maria Popova, the brilliant mind behind the library of musings on Brain Pickings, calls it. “Today, amid our cult of productivity, we’ve come to see boredom as utterly inexcusable — the secular equivalent of a mortal sin. We run from it as if to be caught in our own unproductive company were a profound personal failure. We are no longer able, let alone willing, to do nothing all alone with ourselves.”
“…We are no longer able, let alone willing, to do nothing all alone with ourselves.”
Boredom, the Existentialists thought, wasn’t simply a lack of stimulation; rather, it was an absence of meaning. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard observed that even though boredom has a calm and sedate nature, it curiously has a capacity to catapult people into action — not because this state is invigorating per se, but because it’s emptying. It’s the difference between running towards something that attracts you and running away from it because it’s repellant. Georg Simmel, an early 20th century philosopher, likewise grouched that the pace of modern life wears down the senses, leaving us drenched in ennui — that lethargic sense of disinterest, dissatisfaction, or disappointment that keeps us asking, “What’s it all for? What’s it all worth? What, if anything, really matters?” A century later, with the advent of digital technology that’s produced an exhausting plague of overstimulation, it’s getting increasingly hard to discern what “really matters” even is.
Few things capture this soul-splitting modern-day phenomenon as sweetly and as poignantly as Sidewalk Flowers, a wordless picture book of a little girl collecting wildflowers in an inner-city woodland while her device-distracted father pays her little attention. In 32 winsomely rendered pages, author JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith bring to life the everyday wonder and small moments of beauty and grace that result from simply watching and noticing.
Along the walk, the little girl sees a woman in the back of a car and another reading a book in a crowd at a stoplight. She stops to inspect the arm of a tattooed stranger and crouches beside small dandelions popping though a crack in the sidewalk.
As they continue on their journey, the little girl plucks flowers wherever she finds them and gathers them into a small bouquet; then she quietly bestows them as a gift or a token of respect — to a friendly dog saying hello, and a homeless man asleep on a park bench, even to a little sparrow whose final resting place was the path on which they walked. With each gesture of laying flowers, the pages, earlier monochromatic, come alive with color — as if to show the transformative effect of mindful presence.
When they arrive home, we see that the little girl has placed one of the remaining flowers in her mother’s hair and that of her younger siblings. At last, she tucks one into her own hair, gently behind her ear — as if to say I’ll choose a flower over a phone any day.
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” cautioned psychologist and political scientist Herb Simon in 1971 — back when pocket calculators, the digital wristwatch, and portable cassette players had just erupted onto the scene and Apple was still a nascent company. Flash forward 50 years and now we carry devises the way a child does a teddy bear or blanket. Studies show that Americans check their smartphones somewhere between 96 and 160 times per day — every six to ten minutes — and touch, swipe, or tap it more than 2,500 times. Nearly 88% said they feel uneasy about leaving their phone at home.
Studies show that Americans check their smartphones somewhere between 96 and 160 times per day — every six to ten minutes — and touch, swipe, or tap it more than 2,500 times. Nearly 88% said they feel uneasy about leaving their phone at home.
Polyconsciousness is what one researcher termed this state of mind. Polyconsciousness is when our attention becomes divided between what’s happening in the physical world and the one our devices connect us to, compromising here-and-now interactions with people and the environment.
Research at the University of Toronto suggests that there are different ways of paying attention: exteroception, which is what’s going on around us, perceived through our senses; and interoception, which focuses on what’s going on within us— signals about how our body is feeling inside, like a growling stomach, dry mouth, racing heart, heavy breathing, or tense muscles. All of these and other sensations have much to say about how we feel, what we think, and how we act in each moment. And yet any sound of our authentic voice gets drowned out by the screaming white noise of our digital devices.
Rob Walker said in his book The Art of Noticing, “Every day is filled with opportunities to be amazed, surprised, enthralled — to experience the enchanting everyday. To stay eager. To be, in a word, alive.” This book has some imaginative exercises that can help you to become a clearer thinker, better listener, and general “noticer” of what really matters to you.
Personally, the sweetest and simplest reminder that I’ve found to so show the everyday magic of noticing and being present is from another children’s book by the esteemed author Ruth Krauss’ in her book Open House for Butterflies (illustrated by Maurice Sendak) who wisely suggested that:
From the mouths of babes — and the authors of their books.