I think April’s big question is…will this semester ever end? But, others think April’s big question is:
Isn’t this an ever-expanding universe of tech goodies? Will we be forced to chase hot tools and social platforms to stay competitive? How the heck are we supposed to stay up to speed on all the latest stuff and be successful using it personally and professionally?
How do we keep up?
I like new technology tools. I love getting my “news feeds” from twitter. Have you seen Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweets on aliens? They makes me smile! So, we all learn and use technology tools to “keep up.” My newest tool is Prezi – I learned it works better in Firefox than in IE; and, if you put in graphics, they need to be very high quality to project well. I also learned about QR codes, but am still figuring out which is the best software to use on my phone to read all QR codes. All QR creator sites are not created equally good. So, yes, I use technology tools to keep up.
But, as it is the end of the semester here at the Catholic University of America, and the end of my first academic year on the job. I need to find time to reflect about what worked this year…and what didn’t. To learn my new job I’ve read management books, built LibGuides, “selected” for subject areas, kept track of seven subject budgets and two staff budgets, all the while, still learning how to commute. And I’m thinking, maybe – every now and then – I need to step back to keep up.
It was kismet then today when I read a lecture [delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of last year reprinted in theAmericanScholar.org Spring 2010] by William Deresiewicz (essayist and critic) on Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts .
So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.
It reminded me of the Thomas Merton quote that I have always loved and think of often:
“It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them…. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”
Deresiewicz talks about the new technology tools – and why reading books is better than reading tweets. [Though I love the heavenly irony that I found this lecture through a tweet.] When he rhapsodizes about the importance of solitude and friendship… well, I am still reflecting about why this speaks to me…but it does! Read the whole essay…and then reflect about it for a while.
On tweets and books…
So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.
Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today. And when I say “revolutionary,” I am deliberately evoking the American Revolution, because it was a result of precisely this kind of independent thinking. Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.
On solitude and friendship…
So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude.”
And, in this reflective mode I have checked out the book Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton and will leave you with his prayer [because I often have no idea where I am going] as I reflect and hope, as my friend Adele says, that the big guy/gal is indeed pleased.
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. – from “Thoughts in Solitude” by Thomas Merton