Learning to talk to myself in the sardine can: A journey to discover the inner monologue

By all means use sometimes to be alone.  Salute thyself; see what thy soul doth wear. – George Herbert

Its 9am on southwest airlines flight 575 to Denver. I’m sitting in the first row wedged like a sardine between two men a younger fellow in a crisp business suit and a friendly-looking grandpa. I’m in the midst of my usual flight routine: a rotation between reading the paper, doing the crossword, listening to my iPod, reading a book , feasting my face with 100-calorie cheesenips and ginger ale. While this seems like a bit much, a lot to bite off in a 5 hour flight, its become the norm for me as I get used to traveling for my job.

Perhaps because I can’t physically move around cooped up in a tight space, doing a lot of little tasks keeps me alert– at least until I fall asleep. Business Suit man was doing a similar but more high class routine– replace my Sun Times with his Wall Street Journal, my scratched up iPod with his glistening iPhone, replace the sweaty armpit section on my raggedy Obama T-shirt with his tailor-made threads.

But sometime midflight, we were probably flying over a Nebraska cornfield, I looked over to grandpa on his left and was intrigued. He had no routine like me or Business Suit. He hadn’t said a word other than a warm hello when we first sat down. Yet he was wide awake, his eyes focused ahead but not really looking at anything. The back of his hands rested on his thighs and his wrinkled hands curled upwards. He was wearing a plain, mesh navy blue trucker hat with a small marine pin on the right side. But the hat like the rest of his body sat there motionless, apart from the occasional yawn.

I also noticed that he had absolutely nothing on his person. No watch, no phone, certainly no iPod. I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a Nintendo DS or PSP either. He had nothing in his pockets. And he just sat there. His facial expression wasn’t extremely happy nor sad, but he looked comfortable and content. He looked as if he were at peace. It was at that moment my intrigue turned to curiosity.

Now even as I write this, I’m realizing this might seem a really mundane observation, but compared to myself and Business Suit, what was he doing? How could he just sit there? Didn’t he at least want to read the paper? I wondered what was going through his mind. I wondered what thoughts he was thinking. I wondered who he was visiting and where. Maybe family? Why was he alone? Did he have a wife (didn’t see if he had a wedding ring)? Most importantly, wasn’t he bored? I wanted to ask him, but I almost felt bad interrupting whatever the heck he was doing, so I just went back to reading “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” taking occasional breaks to see what he would do.

That got me thinking — maybe he’s not the strange, intriguing one. Maybe we are, Business Suit and I, with our routines and our everlasting stimuli. In the sardine-can-like environs of the plane, I flood myself with podcasts, books, movies, music. Its the same for me in the car. I turn on my beloved NPR when I’m by myself or listen to sports radio on WSCR670 and enter into the conversation. But grandpa seemed perfectly at peace in his tiny little seat, intently focused, thinking about something, and not at all discontent. If I had his lack of equipment I’d feel restless immediately and resort to either striking up a conversation with a stranger, singing in my head or falling asleep.

And in that moment, I started wondering: Has technology destroyed the inner monologue?

OK, random perhaps? Stay with me for a second. Everyone has one an inner monologue– you know, its the conversation you have with yourself. Its probably in your native language. Its usually something that’s very helpful, we use it to prepare what we’re going to say, we use it to talk with ourselves through plans and ideas, we use it to replay conversations we just had. The inner monologue is something that we use to look into ourselves, to introspect and to learn more and make decisions. Its a really neat thing that we have… an inner voice.

But I’m realizing that some people are more comfortable with theirs than others. Introverts you could perhaps call them. Grandpa you could call them. But certainly not me. This concept consistently fascinates me… how could grandpa just sit on that plane for 5 hours motionless and just in his head. What was he thinking about? How do people do that?

The majority of my day is spent with I guess you could call “outer dialogues” — conversation, TV, movies. Its infinitely more effortless for me to listen to a podcast or talk radio, even if its one person talking into the microphone, than for me to just sit still and listen to my own inner monologue go off. It feels grossly uncomfortable. I can do it for a few moments and then I instantly gravitate towards the outer stimuli.Even when taking a crap, I get restless in the silence and resort to reading the paper. Too much information, I know, but too late.

I wonder what it was like in the olden days of yore… maybe in the days grandpa’s youth, when “outer dialogues” were much harder to come by. Maybe you were grandpa age-25 taking your herd of goats into the hill country (My best guess at his upbringing). There is not a soul for miles. All you have is your dog, your staff and your goats to keep you company, perhaps some lone wolves roaming around and the occasional forest pixie. But there is no iPod to plug into. There is no cell phone to whip out and call to pass the time. There is no magazine crossword puzzle to do while your goats graze on old grass. You just have to sit there with your thoughts. So in that scenario, even the most flaming extrovert would have no choice but to learn to be at peace with his inner monologue… otherwise you’d go stir crazy. Maybe that’s how grandpa got s comfortable in the sardine can: it was his goat farming days!!!!! Eureka!

But in 2010, are extroverts damage to their inner monologue because of the ready access of technology?

I think so… I think that’s people like grandpa are rare… and people like Business Suit and I, shuffling from laptop, to iPod, to the next thing are a dime a dozen. Bottom line: Are iPods destroying our inner monologue?

So let me think through my inner monologue for a second. Its hard and I have to focus, but I think I can do this. Here’s what I’ve been talking to myself about:

  • Being pissed off at myself for missing my flight this morning.
  • Being grateful to have gotten on a standby flight for free through Southwest.
  • Should I lie and say my flight was delayed?
  • I am such an evil man for considering lying about my flight being delayed
  • This current inner monologue would make a funny/interesting entry on my blog.
  • I think people will enjoy it and chuckle.
  • I like when people read my blog and I get a lot of visits.
  • I want to eat mcDonalds for lunch, but its expensive and i need to eat healthy
  • etc.. etc…
  • This is really hard to do… I’m not sure if I should publish this… maybe I should leave this section out… etc… etc…

What is your inner monologue like? How often do you pay attention to what you think about? Do you ever say something in your inner monologue that surprises you? Catches you off guard?

I don’t know grandpa at all, but there’s something about him in the 5 hours I sat next to him that felt calm and at peace. He didn’t need anything but himself and his right mind to spend 5 hours. I want to get to that place in life. I want to be in a place where I can just be and not scramble for the next stimuli, next conversation, next entertainment.

Do you know what the most spiritual activity I’ve done in the past few months? 10 minutes of silence. Just 10 minutes. That’s, what, 600 seconds. I set an timer for ten minutes and I tell myself: I’m just going to sit here quitely, not do anything, not say anything, not play with anything, not necessarily pray, not force myself to think good christian spiritual thoughts… BUT just be and see what happens. see what thoughts bubble to the surface. Its perhaps the hardest 10 minutes i can imagine, but I’ve NEVER done it and not been absolutely amazed by what happened or learned something about myself. To me, this is what quiet time should be. To me, this is constitutes a genuine retreat. But alas, most of my quiet times/retreats are the OPPOSITE of this:  more clutter, more noise, more external stimuli.

One of the things that I’m blown away by is that for me, I feel closest to God, the most in love with him and the most assured of his presence, when I have moments alone, free from the noise and clutter. Because its in those moments I really believe in my heart that He’s here for me, and only me. That’s precious– but hard.

And as I sit here in Denver International Airport it would be infinitely easier to pull out my ipod and listen to another fantastic podcast of radio lab than to just sit and “think.” But maybe I’ll try that and be like grandpa for a change.

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent,
and discerning if he holds his tongue. – Proverbs 17:28

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. -Deitrich Bonhoeffer


One thought on “Learning to talk to myself in the sardine can: A journey to discover the inner monologue

  1. I think you’re on to something here Andy. I enjoy reading on a plane flight, but reviewing memorized Bible verses and intercessory prayer are great activities for shorter trips like bus rides and bike rides. Or just thoughtful reflection, like you’ve done here.

    Keeping your mind busy with technology robs you of reflection time. How can you get to know yourself if you don’t spend time with yourself? Of course there are other forms of self discovery, but thoughtful reflection is one of the most important.

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