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Why do we have such a hard time sitting still?

Digital EditionOphthalmology Times, August 2018
Volume 43
Issue 13

Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled most of the known world from 161 to 180 AD. During this time, he wrote a book composed of his meditations. He meant this to be for his eyes only, and left orders that it be destroyed upon his death. But rather than burn the book, his successors decided that it was so special that it must be preserved and published.

What kind of person writes a book only for himself? In this instance, it is a man who wishes to ponder key questions about how he is using his life. As an example, in one meditation he asks himself: “To what purpose, then, am I now using my soul?” (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations Book V, No. 11).

How do we answer that question? It requires taking time for pondering, listening, reflecting, soul-searching. For we who are living two millennia after Marcus Aurelius, those things don’t happen very easily: taking time, pondering, listening, reflecting, searching.

Four years ago, University of Virginia Professor Timothy Wilson, PhD, directed a study in which men and women were encouraged to simply sit still and let their minds wander for 15 minutes.1

Women and men both failed. In minutes, most were wondering if they’d missed any calls or texts, or if they’d gotten any email. Was there something they should be working on? What’s new on Facebook? What was next on the calendar? They reported that they simply could not comply with the professor’s request!

Wilson wondered: Were people so uncomfortable with stillness that they would prefer negative stimulation instead?

The men and women in the study were given these options for their 15 minutes: sit quietly or shock yourself. A device hooked to a 9-volt battery gave a mild shock when a subject pressed his or her button. One-fourth of the women and two-thirds of men chose to press the button. One man hit it 190 times in 15 minutes.

If we are never still, how can we connect with our soul and reflect on our purpose in life?

I do not know whether any ophthalmologists were included in this psychology experiment. But I do believe that the demands placed on us, the need for us to efficiently care for so many patients in our clinics and our operating rooms, plus by the errands and demands we face when we leave the office, have taught us to be busy almost every second of our lives. This training makes it very difficult for ophthalmologists to silence our devices, be by ourselves, be still and simply reflect upon how we are leading our lives and, as Marcus Aurelius would put it, using our souls.

Have you spent 15 minutes recently doing nothing but pondering whether you are putting your soul to its best use? Would you agree, dear reader, that this is a question worth asking and answering?

Peter J. McDonnell
P: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514
E: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu
Director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times. He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278


1. Wilson et al. Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science. 2014;345:75–77.

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