Perhaps, like me, you instinctively reach for your phone. Standing in line to buy cupcakes this summer, I scrolled on my phone. Waiting for my dentist appointment several weeks later, I scrolled on my phone. I plug in every crack of empty time by reading news articles, emails and Tweets.
I overuse my phone partly because smartphones and social media are designed to be addictive. Like a potent gas, technology can dull our senses as it expands into the smallest crevices of our daily lives. But the fear of idle moments that makes us turn to our digital devices predates the digital age. Smartphone usage reflects a longstanding uneasiness with silence that we should try to overcome.
Time has long been thought of as something that must be spent wisely and never taken for granted. The Roman poet Horace suggested that we must “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one,” a phrase we know today by its shorthand carpe diem. Robert Herrick’s famous 1648 poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” tells us to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
Do stuff now, Horace and Herrick said. Who knows how much time you have left? Every second you’re not doing something is an opportunity. Every moment you do nothing is a sin. Go, go, go! Chase the horizon, even though the sun will set regardless.
When time is characterized as a scarce resource, we become obsessed with extracting as much value from it as possible. That’s true regardless of different perceptions of what constitutes value.
Ambitious people are scared of wasting time by being complacent. For example, the 14th-century epic poem “Inferno” warns that “the man who lies asleep will never waken fame, and his desire and all his life will drift past him like a dream.” Alexander Hamilton, we are told in the famous Broadway musical, “[writes] day and night” like he’s “running out of time.” Ambition in these cases seems like an attempt to conquer time by effectively using it — as if one can spite the clock by working around the clock.
Other people are scared of wasting time by being overly ambitious. To them, limited time should impel us to fill up our schedule with what’s truly important. That means climbing a mountain instead of a corporate ladder. That means spending more time among family and friends. This mindset reflects a different view of how time should be optimized. But it shares a common thread with the outlook of the ambitious that time is something to be optimized.
All optimization means is that people who see time as something valuable will theoretically spend that time on things they think are important. In reality, however, most of us would acknowledge there are frequent mismatches between what we say we value and the things we actually do.
Smartphone usage is one such mismatch. Spending hours on our phones mocks any view of time optimization. If we really wanted to make the most of our time — whatever we believe that entailed — we probably wouldn’t endlessly binge TikToks. But in other ways, digital addiction is the perfect fulfillment of a mentality that abhors empty time. The fear of doing nothing is greater than the fear of doing the wrong thing. We are happy to waste time so long as we feel we are spending it.
Eight centuries ago, the poet Rumi wrote that “your entire life was a frantic running away from silence.” Before the printing press, before the Industrial Revolution, before the internet, Rumi lauded the value of emptiness even as he expressed humans’ general discomfort with it.
That discomfort can be heard when we feel compelled to break the silence of a dinner table or when someone eventually answers a professor’s question after a long lapse. That discomfort can be seen in Stanford students’ tendency to take on more classes and commitments than we can handle: we’re more afraid of empty time than we are of a bloated schedule. And that discomfort is articulated when we take out our phones during any unplanned free moment.
Silence, I agree, is scary. I run from it often. Silence forces us to “endure our thoughts,” to borrow a phrase by the poet Wallace Stevens. It asks what is left of us when we stop trying to fill space and time — a particularly worrisome question for Stanford students who often think of ourselves in terms of our accomplishments.
But as the new academic year begins, as the excitement and stress of our frenetic quarter system gradually pick up, I think it’s worth embracing the occasional silent moment. We do not need to become ascetics. We do not need to stop challenging ourselves intellectually. But we should try to not fill up every second of our daily schedule.
That might mean taking a lighter course load (don’t be afraid to drop a class Week 3!) or not continuously reaching for our phone. Empty time is not a crack we always need to plug. If anything, it’s a fissure we should welcome and even strive to create.