Notes & Essays

Has this generation forgotten how to relax?!

Life in the city never shuts up. How can we find some much needed quiet time and real, undistracted human interaction?
IMAGE Getty + Dave and Les Jacobs
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This was originally published in our April 2013 issue.

Find me a quiet place: a public area that isn't in some far-flung part of the Philippines, a place that isn’t abandoned, uninhabited, or a graveyard. Find me a place to recover from the noisy neighborhood, where often the lyrics of standard hits and the latest pop songs are murdered by videoke and we are made to overhear. If it’s not animals mating, it’s some couple somewhere on the street fighting. We know that our neighbors love their television shows, but do we have to hear them too? “Go to a memorial chapel,” suggests a foreign friend. But our customs with the dead are very di­fferent from his. If it’s not too much crying, there are too many guests to entertain, and too much eating. Replace the flowers with balloons and some of our wakes are birthday parties.

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More than the quiet, they were bothered by the stillness and the slow passage of the hour without some device to use to kill the time.

While trapped in public transport, must we overhear a one-sided private conversation because our fellow passenger cannot talk softly or say “I’m on the road” and end the call? Meanwhile, aboard a taxi, a weaker-willed passenger is held hostage by both the traffic and the driver’s choice of radio station, paralyzed by what passes for radio commentary. When the driver switches stations it is to listen to some popular, upbeat repetitive dance track that burrows itself into their heads and is stuck there for the rest of the day.

For those who can afford a home less noisy or a more silent workplace, the quiet may be breached by the constant sound of a computer or mobile phone letting us know that someone, somewhere, is trying to reach us. Asked to talk about the silence and their electronic devices, a student of mine once said: “Sometimes even when the phone isn’t ringing I pick it up and ask, ‘Why aren’t you ringing?’ Even when it’s on silent I seem to know that someone is trying to reach me. Someone is always trying to reach me.”

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“Sometimes even when the phone isn’t ringing I pick it up and ask, ‘Why aren’t you ringing?’ Even when it’s on silent I seem to know that someone is trying to reach me. Someone is always trying to reach me.”

Thanks to our devices we are perpetually connected to everything, sometimes to people we do not know or like, and it takes such an effort to remain still. We need a quiet space where we can collect ourselves, and give ourselves time to process what we’ve seen and felt in the day. We need a stopping place where we can let our thoughts and actions catch up with each other. We need it, if only to remind us that we are human.

I discovered that one of the hardest exercises I gave my creative writing class is to spend a complete hour to disconnect and do nothing. “This is free time given to you that isn’t free. You cannot use it to eat, drink, sleep, play, chat, talk, text, read, or write.” And how do they not do anything? Those who were more patient claimed their quiet spots from some corner of their homes and buildings. Others had to seek it out in stairwells, in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices, under their beds. For the first time in a long time they said they could hear more of themselves and their surroundings.

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Responses ranged through amazement, fear, impatience. Several found the activity boring and fell asleep. One student said she could actually hear herself think. The closest that this happened to her was when she was struggling in the quiet of an examination room. Here, in her own defined space, she was relaxed. Then after a few minutes, the tension got to her because the quiet was too long and too quiet. More than that, she could not do anything to change it. Like her, many could not stay put. In the struggle not to fidget in their seats, they planned the week in their heads, updated their inner to-do lists, and some simply gave up and went back to their routines. One of them later confessed that he would rather be given a 15-page paper to write and submit overnight than to struggle with a dead hour.

More than the quiet, they were bothered by the stillness and the slow passage of the hour without some device to use to kill the time. While technology helps us by extending the reach of our bodies, our dependence on it removes us from these same bodies. Not being computers or machines, we su er from hurry sickness and find ourselves exposed to more things to see and do than we can manage, and we get overwhelmed by all the tasks. But then we get impatient when nothing happens.

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We need a stopping place where we can let our thoughts and actions catch up with each other, if only to remind us that we are human. 

My friends and I are as guilty as my students. Our previous dinner gatherings found us all seated together at one long table. A silence would pass over us because we were all too busy with our much-loved devices: messages to read, photos to post, and games to play. Then sometimes we’d look up from our individual display screens and notice that someone is right there in front of us and we’ll say hello and laugh. The first time this happened it was amusing. After the next two, we wondered why we even bothered showing up when we could just message each other from the quiet of wherever we were. So we formed an agreement that whenever we meet, we surrender all devices to the center of the table. Our devices are not us and not extensions of us. So we must all work hard to ignore them and try out best to hold a normal conversation with each other like we used to do. The first person who picks up his or her device loses and has to pay for everyone’s dinner. It seems easy at first, especially when there was something urgent to discuss. Then someone’s phone rings. It doesn’t matter whose phone it is. We just want to check ours. But our architect friend concedes before we do. “I don’t care what the rule is,” she says. “This might be really urgent,” and picks up her phone while asking for the bill.

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Paolo Manalo
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