Sitting on a bench in a little square in a side street in Lyon, I watched my Sunday morning companions. Some sat in twos and threes and chatted in the pleasant warmth of the spring sun. One man stared fixedly into the middle distance, as if in a trance. He dod not move for half an hour.
A lady in her mid-nineties once told me with a sense of perplexity that a friend had told her that they could easily sit on a bench for an hour and watch the time passing. It seemed contrary to the entire Protestant work ethic which had governed her life that anyone would sit willingly and do nothing.
I had pondered her comment and admitted that I could probably do so myself, that sitting in thought for an hour would not seem such a bad thing.
Doing nothing seems to have become increasingly difficult for people. Boredom thresholds have shortened to a few seconds. Watch young people at a bus stop, watch them when them at break times at school, watch them when the bell rings for the end of lessons: immediately they turn to their phones. The addiction to electronic media is such that silent thought has become a rarity.
Perhaps it is not important. I spent countless hours in thought when I was young; hours spent looking out the window towards the Mendip Hills; hours spent staring into an undefined middle distance in the house; hours pondering nothing at all in the garden; and all of those hours produced nothing, except for a capacity for tolerating boredom.
Perhaps, though, there are some people whose loss of a capacity to sit in silent thought is a loss for all of us. People who have the capacity to be original, to be creative, to be incisive, to be subversive, will have thoughts to offer to everyone, yet if they never spend time in developing those thoughts, then it is to the detriment of all of us.
It is astonishing now to consider the universities of medieval times, when books and writing materials were rare and precious commodities, and to think of how much time was spent in listening and in thought. Committing material to memory, examining it in your mind, formulating arguments on the basis of what had been heard and what had been thought, must have been a demanding exercise, one which would be beyond the capacity of most of us today.
Our capacity to think perhaps depends upon our capacity to do nothing. If we can’t sit in silence, how much are we losing?