Editorial: Embracing stillness
In 2014, Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, got hundreds of students and other volunteers to take part in what he called ‘thinking periods’, for a research project. He asked the participants to sit and think for 15 minutes in a room that was empty apart from a machine which, he explained, would give them an electric shock if they pressed the button.
The result was that, during the time they were in the room, a quarter of the female volunteers, and two-thirds of the male ones, chose to give themselves a shock. All participants had said beforehand that they would pay money to avoid an electric shock, and yet most men, and plenty of women, decided to inflict one on themselves rather than sit for 15 minutes with their own thoughts.
I’m going to skirt over what this says about my sex. Instead, I’m fascinated by the shocking fact (ha!) that almost half of us people find stillness and silence so hard to cope with that physical pain is preferable. Shocking, but reassuring that I’m not alone.
I would like to think that I’m in the minority of men who would be perfectly happy sitting alone in peace and quiet for fifteen minutes. But that would be to overlook how completely I fail to have any stillness in my life at all. I know, from the times, few and infrequent, when I have persuaded myself to sit in silence for ten minutes and reflect, that I find it hugely refreshing and healthful. But even under lockdown, working from home, with all that commuting time cleared from my schedule, I haven’t found time once to sit for five minutes and reflect. It seems a pity. Mental busyness is clearly my default state, and, even when you take away other things, it crowds in to fill the space.
I suppose the time comes to most of us, maybe in later life, when we find we have all the silence and solitude we could want. I fear that if, by that point, I haven’t learned to embrace it out of love, I will handle it even less well.
Embracing stillness has been part of Christian tradition since the first time Jesus took himself off into the wilderness to be alone with the Father. I feel the need to enter into that tradition more than I have done. Well, this page has served me well in this way before, so I’m telling you that, over the next year, I will try to make a habit of spending ten minutes of stillness, alone with my thoughts and with the Father. A still fairly new year’s resolution. I’ll report back this time next year.
This article was published in the May 2021 edition of Reform