At some point in the 1650s, the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal jotted down one of the most counterintuitive aphorisms of all time: ‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room.’
Really? Surely having to stay quietly in one’s room must be the beginning of a particularly evolved kind of psychological torture? What could be more opposed to the human spirit than to have to inhabit four walls when, potentially, there would be a whole planet to explore?
And yet Pascal’s idea usefully challenges one of our most cherished beliefs: that we must always go to new places in order to feel and discover new and worthwhile things. What if, in fact, there were already a treasury inside us? What if we had within our own brains already accumulated a sufficient number of awe-inspiring, calming and interesting experiences to last us ten lifetimes? What if our real problem was not so much that we are not allowed to go anywhere – but that we don’t how to make the most of what is already to hand?
Being confined at home gives us a range of curious benefits. The first is an encouragement to think. Whatever we like to believe, few of us do much of the solitary original bold kind of thinking that can restore our spirits and move our lives ahead. The new ideas we might stumble upon if we did travel more ambitiously around our minds while lying on the sofa could threaten our mental status quo. An original thought might, for example, alienate us from what people around us think of as normal. Or it might herald a realisation that we’ve been pursuing the wrong approach to an important issue in our lives, perhaps for a long time. If we took a given new idea seriously, we might have to abandon a relationship, leave a job, ditch a friend, apologise to someone, rethink our sexuality or break a habit.
But a period of quiet thinking in our room creates an occasion when the mind can order and understand itself. Fears, resentments and hopes become easier to name; we grow less scared of the contents of our own minds – and less resentful, calmer and clearer about our direction. We start, in faltering steps, to know ourselves slightly better.
Another thing we can do in our own rooms is to return to travels we have already taken. This is not a fashionable idea. Most of the time, we are given powerful encouragement to engineer new kinds of travel experiences. The idea of making a big deal of revisiting a journey in memory sounds a little strange – or simply sad. This is an enormous pity. We are hugely careless curators of our own pasts. We push the important scenes that have happened to us at the back of the cupboard of our minds and don’t particularly expect to see them ever again.
But what if we were to alter the hierarchy of prestige a little and argue that regular immersion in our travel memories could be a critical part of what can sustain and console us – and not least, is perhaps the cheapest and most flexible form of entertainment. We should think it almost as prestigious to sit at home and reflect on a trip we once took to an island with our imaginations as to trek to the island with our cumbersome bodies.
In our neglect of our memories, we are spoilt children, who squeeze only a portion of the pleasure from experiences and then toss them aside to seek new thrills. Part of why we feel the need for so many new experiences may simply be that we are so bad at absorbing the ones we have had.
To help us focus more on our memories, we need nothing technical. We certainly don’t need a camera. There is a camera in our minds already: it is always on, it takes everything we’ve ever seen. Huge chunks of experience are still there in our heads, intact, and vivid, just waiting for us to ask ourselves leading questions like: ‘where did we go after we landed?’ or ‘what was the first breakfast like?’ Our experiences have not disappeared, just because they are no longer unfolding right in front of our eyes. We can remain in touch with so much of what made them pleasurable simply through the art of evocation. We talk endlessly of virtual reality. Yet we don’t need gadgets. We have the finest virtual reality machines already in our own heads. We can – right now – shut our eyes and travel into, and linger amongst, the very best and most consoling and life-enhancing bits of our pasts…