German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote about the “high importance” of “the art of not reading.” There was a danger in reading too much, he warned. Excessive reading leads clever minds to become “the playground of others’ thoughts.” With so much to read, he feared that people would read themselves stupid.
The solution? It was to observe an intellectual Sabbath. Take time off from reading. Without such a respite your mind is in danger of being a place that others occupy. The aim of a true writer, according to Schopenhauer, was to be original.
To be true to one’s self means being able to find that part of yourself that can distinguish between the life that others want you to live and the life that is worth living.
The self is the composite of all the relationships accumulated over a lifetime, but most especially those encountered during childhood. The unfortunate state of affairs for many the scripts written by adults for children and by culture for adults are accepted without thought.
The uniqueness of personality is often obscured by the clamor of society, a carnival of distractions.
For Schopenhauer the distractions came in the form of books. He wasn’t opposed to education; he wanted real education. He wasn’t promoting ignorance; he wanted people to sort what was mere opinion from real knowledge. He didn’t want to waste the mind; he believed that wisdom must finally be original.
If he were alive today, Schopenhauer wouldn’t decry the overuse of books but their underuse. We don’t need a sabbatical from reading (we need more of it) but a timeout from screens. No one except perhaps a reclusive scholar spends as much time absorbed in other people’s thoughts and lives as we do today. When alone, walking, driving, eating, at work, in the classroom, at the dinner table, in bed—there is a game to play, a movie to watch, an electronic chat to be had, an account to be read, chatter, chatter, chatter.
Put it down.
Schopenhauer’s challenge was the same one tossed down by Emerson and by others before him and since. Know yourself. Really know yourself. Have the courage to discover what is uniquely your own; have the courage to act on what you have found.
The paradox of the Sabbatical—the turning out the buzz and turmoil—is that the original and unique self is one that is engaged with others in the mutual pursuit of bringing out the best in one another. This was Aristotle’s insight when he said that true friends are those that bring out the best and nobler selves in each other. The most original part of our personalities is discovered in that time carved out in which we take time to sit together, without distractions, where we can listen to one another even in silence.