How long can you go without talking or checking your phone?
Last year, as part of the religious studies class “Living Deliberately,” I had to spend a month in silence — I had to go to bed at nine, get up at five (without using an alarm) and I couldn’t talk, use a computer or even look people in the eye.
The experience made me realize how far I had slipped into the thoughtlessness of a busy life. Intellectually, I had been busy with papers and readings. My time was filled with rehearsals and class.
But when I stopped talking, shut off my computer and started listening to my thoughts, I realized that they were insistent and contradictory, shallow and profound.
I based my social life on prestige rather than real preference. I mistook superficial affinities — “Wow, you’re Viennese? We’re gonna be best friends!” — for common values.
I went to parties I didn’t enjoy to maintain contacts that were only good for getting me into the same events I hated. It took brutal self-assessment to admit the motives behind my social life and introspection to find out what I enjoy independently of opinion and comfort.
Since my month of silence, I’ve spent more Friday nights in the Harnwell practice room than on the dance floor.
As long as my life was cluttered, I didn’t have the time to even realize how useless most of my endeavors and friendships were. I had been so busy with school, contacts and music that I hadn’t made time for myself.
I justified it by telling myself that clubs can go on a resume and solitude can’t. It’s hard to sit alone in a room and think.
It’s uncomfortable to question ourselves and hear our own inconstancies, frailties and vanities. However, we must do so because we are our first laboratory and friend.
Discovering our own weaknesses and perversities is the first step towards tolerating the same in others.
Knowing what we value is the only way to prioritize friends and activities. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “It is not possible to run a course aright when the goal itself has not been rightly placed.”
I’m not suggesting you should spend a month in silence. But there is no excuse for us to lose ourselves in useless resume builders (as so many activities here are), because we need not panic over our futures. A Penn graduate who does well in her classes will never starve and will eventually find a job. But a Penn grad who has never learned to reflect on herself is not worthy of the name.
Whatever career we choose, self-assessment will be crucial to overcoming difficulties and roadblocks in our chosen paths. A recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “The Secret Ingredient to Success,” attributed brutal self-assessment to the achievement of everyone from famous cooks to tennis stars to rock stars.
So drop a club, or better yet, take a moment to reflect while you eat instead of Instagraming your sandwich. The chances are you aren’t as busy as you think. Texts rarely yield riveting conversations and we all waste more time online than we care to admit.
The problem is that these both fill those dead moments on the way to class when our mind might otherwise wander and doubt. Stop suppressing those questions, those unbidden thoughts and give your mind a chance.
Xavier Flory is a College sophomore from Nokesville, Va. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @FloryXavier. “The Gadfly” appears every other Monday.