This is part 26 of 30 in the Hammertime Sequence. Click here for the intro.
The full can is silent, but the half-empty can makes a loud noise.
~ Chinese proverb.
Take a bottle or soda can and fill it halfway with water. Shake the can – the water will slosh around loudly.
Now, fill the can to the brim and shake it again. It’s almost completely silent.
This is an essay about inner silence – calming one’s loudest inner voices to allow quieter voices to speak. Usually, the quieter ones have urgent messages, especially given how long they’ve been neglected.
This post is, in some sense, a followup to Babble.
An Ocean of Voices
It is common sense that the loudest politician is rarely the wisest. That the child who cries the loudest is rarely the one suffers most. That the friend who criticizes most harshly rarely has the best advice. If anything, the volume of a voice negatively correlates with its value.
The Solitaire Principle states that any failure mode of groups of people also applies within the heart of each single human being. A dozen sub-personalities fight over control of your mind, each of their voices clamoring to drown out the others. Perhaps only one or two of them are consistently allowed to speak.
This picture is further complicated by two features. First, voices are quiet for a reason. There are many things your brain is doing that it doesn’t want you to know about (see The Elephant in the Brain). These “meta-cognitive blindspots” may be huge issues in your life that you somehow never get to thinking about. Every time you start, you feel unexpectedly sleepy or preoccupied. Your brain sends an army of louder voices to crowd out the tiny note of confusion whispering: Look at the elephant! Acknowledge the elephant!
Second, external voices are also competing for airtime in your head, and may easily drown out even your strongest inner voice, e.g. the phenomenon “the music is so loud I can’t hear myself think.” All sorts of reading, listening, and watching are processes by which we supplant our internal voices with external ones.
This post is about how attractive and dangerous it is to allow external voices drown internal ones out, once and for all.
The Burden of Consciousness
There are a handful of activities that routinely swallow my time like bottomless holes. Playing video games. Watching anime. Reading fiction. Clicking through Reddit. I feel the urge to throw myself into them periodically.
For a long time, I thought these actions were mainly experiential pica: my brain trying to satisfy my needs for signs of progress, self-improvement, drama, and narrative energy. But the other day, I tried taking a nap instead of watching anime, and it satisfied the same urge. That’s when I realized what I was really looking for: the fast-forward button.
Living consciously and intentionally was too effortful, facing my problems head-on too painful, and what I wanted more than anything was to shut down my own thoughts and fast-forward through life. Read a thousand-page novel, watch a six-season TV show, scroll through a hundred life stories on AskReddit. These were all ways to forfeit my agency and become a medium for someone else’s narrative force.
In sum, the executive thread in my brain did everything in its power to shut itself off.
The Will to Nothingness
The book which for me most poignantly describes the burden of consciousness is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (a novel that I almost don’t recommend). It’s a depressing story in which every character is on the brink of suicide, philosophically and literally.
Here’s a moment when the protagonist’s sister Lucille is accused of cheating (emphasis mine):
Lucille was much too indifferent to school ever to be guilty of cheating, and it was only an evil fate that had prompted her to write Simon Bolivar, and the girl in front of her to write Simon Bolivar, when the answer was obviously General Santa Anna. This was the only error either of them made, and so their papers were identical. Lucille was astonished to find that the teacher was so easily convinced of her guilt, so immovably persuaded of it, calling her up in front of the class and demanding that she account for the identical papers. Lucille writhed under this violation of her anonymity. At the mere thought of school, her ears turned red.
This moment clarified for me an insight about exactly the kind of nothingness the girls in Housekeeping were after. In this kind of nothingness, apathy, conformity, and anonymity are central, while actual suicide is a mere afterthought.
Following Nietzsche (whom I will presumably never understand), we call this urge the will to nothingness. It prays:
Let me not be heard.
Let me not be seen.
Take away my agency.
Drown out my voice.
Fast-forward me through the years.
Let me be one indistinguishable face in a crowd.
Let not the sunrise bring me joy.
Nor sunset sorrow.
Where does the will to nonexistence come from? Part of it is an insecurity that what you have to say is insufficient, that who you are is too broken to contribute. Part of it is bitterness that the world doesn’t deserve to hear your voice and see your face. That these two contradictory ideas coexist in a single heart should only surprise you if you’ve never met a human being.
The Cure to Nihilism is Silence?!
I will not pretend to know how to solve the problem in general, but this is what worked for me. An insightful friend of mine asked me one question which shook me out of the will to nothingness:
“What if every time you wanted to play video games you just introspected instead?”
It had never occurred to me, despite the fact that I love to write, despite the hours I daydream and doodle at every opportunity, that I could make room for these inner voices by silencing the world completely.
For weeks after that day, I took many long walks, muttering gibberish under my breath. I lay in bed and daydreamed. I wrote for hours without stop. In that time I learned that my will to nothingness was unjustified. I learned that my inner voices would never stop having things to say. Later, I also learned that the world deserves everything I can give it, and more.
Look through your life. What do you do to shut off the burden of consciousness? Do you reach for your phone at boring social engagements? Do you drink or smoke? Do you throw yourself into stories that have little artistic merit just to pass the time?
What would happen if every time you wanted to do that, you introspected instead?