Can we welcome time alone with our thoughts this Lent?
In 2014, a study was released by the journal Science that concluded that people would rather subject themselves to physical pain than be left with only their thoughts for company. An online report by Nadia Whitehead outlines the premise of the experiment.
“Individuals were placed in sparsely furnished rooms and asked to put away their belongings, such as cellphones and pens. They then were given one of two tests that lasted between 6 and 15 minutes,” she writes. “While some were told to think about whatever they wanted, others chose from several prompts, such as going out to eat or playing a sport, and planned out how they would think about it during the period.”
About 50 percent of participants reported that they didn’t like the experience of simply thinking, with many adding that they had been bored.
Taking the study a step further, the researchers from the University of Virginia next gave participants the option of either thinking or shocking themselves with electricity.
“Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think,” Whitehead writes.
We are officially a culture that is opposed to spending time inside our heads. And why not? It’s something to which we are not at all accustomed. Instead, every moment of every day is cluttered with noise. There’s music and podcasts in the car; texting and social media on the phone; earbuds or Beats at the gym; TV and smart speakers once we get home. We have no reason, no need, to sit quietly and simply think.
Unfortunately, even as we think less, we are speaking more. Just take the Covington Catholic fiasco from the March for Life in January. No one thought and everyone spoke immediately — and on their social media megaphones. And because even news organizations are thinking less, false and harmful headlines suddenly were ubiquitous.
But though technology plays a large role in making it easy to avoid thinking, I believe there’s a bigger reason we are scared to be alone with our thoughts. For with quiet reflection can come self-doubt, self-criticism, shame and regret. In short, time alone with our thoughts allows us time alone with our conscience. And sometimes we don’t like what our conscience has to say.
Which brings me to Lent — what should be a season of meaningful self-reflection. Perhaps if we find ourselves tempted by all the noise this world has to offer, we might consider performing a daily examination of conscience for the next 40 days. This can be done at night, right before bed. And in silence.
It’s not hard. It just takes some courage to be open to where our thoughts might lead us. And the fortitude to know that it’s worth it.
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor-in-chief of OSV Newsweekly. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.