Tuning In

Sometimes you just have to turn it off

Bill McKibben
Magazine Issue
January/February 1994
Tuning In

A MAN WALKS INTO A ROOM, FUMBLES FOR THE REMOTE and turns on the TV. This is the quintessential act of modern life. It obliterates the three rarest commodities of our age: silence, solitude and darkness. Weather 100 times a day. SportsCenter, CNN, People, WFAN. “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.” MTV no drifting away into reverie, too busy counting thighs. Enough Sunday paper to last till evening. Blockbuster Video. The Comedy Channel. The op-ed page. The Sharper Image catalogue, the computer bulletin board, the phone in the car-plane-toilet. The fax unrolling, the pager chirping. Two weeks of previews for the Academy Awards, the Academy Awards, three days of Academy Awards postmortem. Ours is the age of distraction.

I live in a house without a television, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, far enough out that no one will deliver us a daily newspaper. And yet the magazines and newsletters arrive with each morning’s mail, and every time I plunk myself down on the sofa I reach for them. The radio fills the silence half the day.

Because our minds are jazzed. Because we fear boredom. Because we are so hooked on infodrug, on intravenous entertainment, that any break in the action seems unnatural, a vacuum. And yet each of us intuits this, too: We are lacking something, something for which Siskel, Ebert, Safire, Keanu, Shaq and Naughty by Nature are insufficient substitutes. Solitude, silence, darkness.

Some years ago, I went on a long solo backpacking trip. Only a week, but that was as long as I’d ever been by myself, all alone except for an occasional chance meeting. The hiking was not hard; there was no high adventure. And for a day or two, my mind still rang with the almost literal buzz of regular life. My opinions on presidential politics, the plots of shows I’d seen, my plans for the projects I’d take up next I was my own little CNN, neurons chattering happily away. And I hardly noticed where I was hiking. My eyes were fixed on some invisible middle distance, the same place you look when you’re driving a car on the highway.

But after a few days away, my head started to quiet down. I started to notice my body to notice, almost for the first time in my life, when I was really hungry as opposed to when it was time for dinner. I started to notice the woods, notice them deeply stop for long stretches to watch birds, stare at strange mushrooms, feel scaly bark. Feel the sun, feel it letting me stretch out. Feel the faint breeze lift the hairs on my back. See twilight turn detail to geometry and then to suggestion. Stare for hours.

And so what? That is a hard question to answer, hard because Reprinted by permission of the author and the Watkins/Loomis Agency and first published in Esquire, October, 1993.

The answers are subtle, hard because they are easy to ridicule. I think the answer goes like this: There are other broadcasts, on wavelengths that do not appear on our cable boxes, other commentaries, which do not appear in the back pages of newspapers.

These natural broadcasts are timeless the sense of the presence of the divine, for instance, that has marked human beings in every culture as far back as anthropologists can go and that we now try unsuccessfully to buy from televangelists or crystal merchants. These broadcasts are low, resonant only in stillness. They are easily jammed we don’t have to be in the woods to hear them, but we have to be quiet.

What do these broadcasts concern? Nothing new. Nothing new. Nothing novel. Only the most basic information, the sort that can ground us; that we are part, a seamless part, of something very much bigger, which is an almost incomprehensible notion for us. We have no dark, so we do not see the stars the Hubble telescope sending back radio images of the Big Bang is no substitute for a score of nights under the blanket of stars or for the luminous enfolding of the northern lights.

All this sounds trippy. And is it not self-indulgent in a world and an age that demand responsibility, attention? In point of cold, hard fact, there’s no real danger of escaping information. It would be wrong to choose ignorance of the genocide underway in Bosnia. But day after day, to stare distractedly at the latest scene of devastation, the latest dying child, the latest grieving mother? What we need is not additional information we have, the least-informed of us, more information than a king two centuries ago but more reflection, more silence and solitude and darkness to put in context what we know. What we know about Bosnia, what we know about our lives and our wives and our children.

Self-obsession is no risk, either. Self-obsession is what comes through the TV set the ceaseless preoccupation with keeping us from becoming bored for even an instant. Reminding us at every break that our immediate satisfaction is the purpose of a consumer society. Listening to this other broadcast, this low-level rumbling, opens us to the world. If it seems at first superficially dull if meditation seems maddening, if the sunset seems to take a hell of a long time at some deeper level, the absence of distraction soon becomes a chuckling thrill.

We are past the point in human history where the deep currents of existence belong to us by birthright we have to fight to block out some of the endless rain of information, entertainment, stress. We have to fight not to turn on the TV, to walk into the room and savor the quiet. To get started, we have to take the long view and remind ourselves that no one ever lay on his deathbed wishing he’d watched more Matlock.