Every year during the Jewish High Holy Days, I am reminded of how terrible I am at sitting still. The prospect of being without my phone, reading or doing any immediate tasks for several hours is initially very appealing — thank you, God, that I have the perfect excuse to be unreachable — but 15 minutes into a service, I become antsy.
My inability to go longer than a quarter of an hour without fidgeting or making long mental to-do lists is a source of great personal frustration. I think of myself as someone who enjoys and often longs for quiet, but when faced with imposed time for reflection, I find myself yearning for external stimulation. When I drag my attention back to the task at hand — prayer and self-reflection — I feel that I’m missing the point: Shouldn’t I want to take time out to think over the past and look to the future? And because I want to make space for reflection in my life, shouldn’t I be delighted when handed the opportunity?
The answer to both questions should be a resounding yes, but it isn’t that simple. My life at Yale is fast-paced enough that sitting in silence for two hours without taking notes has become a profoundly foreign concept. I’ve become uncomfortable with the idea that time spent seemingly unproductively — that is, without a pile of work or at least a great conversation to show at the end — can be productive. It forces a kind of engagement with the self that I avoid when I let my only silent moments be those when I am reading, running or sleeping. It’s become easier for me to use silent moments as opportunities for planning future activity, rather than embracing introspection.
I was forced to ask myself that question while I fidgeted in services two days ago: Am I avoiding myself — and if so, why? What was, ironically, so disquieting about spending time alone, in silence, for more than a few moments?
Something clicked, unexpectedly, when I asked myself that question. I’d let my busyness become a means of ignoring the insecurities that I don’t like to look at too closely. When alone, my fears about past experiences and worries about future mistakes rear their ugly heads much more dramatically. With other people, surrounded by noise, I can suppress these fears. Alone, with my hands empty, I can’t avoid them.
Judaism speaks of the importance of listening to the still small voice within — the voice of your soul or spirit. The High Holy Days are an opportunity to locate that voice and pay attention to what it has to say. Wisely, services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are structured so that there are many opportunities for silent and repetitive prayer so that the internal voice is heard, almost inevitably.
My voice this year was a little weak — I hadn’t listened in a while — but what it told me took me by surprise. Let yourself be bored, sometimes, it said. Find moments when you can be instead of do.
Probably because my voice was smarter and sassier than I am, I was disarmed by what I heard. Being bored is one of my least favorite sensations, but it’s probably healthy for me to experience from time to time: It forces me to encounter the self I’m often trying to avoid. When there’s nothing to do, after all, you’re left only with yourself.
I was also reminded that forming an attachment to yourself is the same as building a great friendship: It takes time, openness and a willingness to make yourself vulnerable in order to create intimacy and comfort. My unease about being alone — and the rustiness of my inner voice — is a reminder that I’ve invested almost no time and made limited attempts at internal disclosure since coming to Yale, for fear of what I’d find.
As I left services, the last echo of the still, quiet voice whispered that one of the great joys of life is loving your own company. Outside Battell, I made my new year’s resolution: to find ways to listen better than I had before and to learn how to savor my own company. Come Yom Kippur, I hope I can sit silently more comfortably than I did during Rosh Hashanah. But if not, I’ve still got my still, small voice, whose sass and wisdom will, I hope, bring me back to myself.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.