These days I notice the same thing everyone else does: Most people walking (or driving!) along are in their own little world, oblivious to the larger world around them, because they are either talking on a cell phone with an earpiece in their ear or texting. It’s become a world of walking cocoons.
I’m woefully behind on all this technology because, while I do correspond with friends on email, I don’t have a cell phone that texts. I haven’t yet updated my antiquated cell phone because Whitley and I, as business partners, share a cell phone number (although he’s the one who actually carries the phone). When it comes to cell phones, I’m like someone who is still using a dial, while everyone else is pushing buttons.
I’m still at the primitive stage of when someone I’m with is talking to someone else using an earpiece, I will often answer them, not realizing that they’re not talking to me. Whenever I do this, they always pause in their conversation with whomever and gesture towards their ear, explaining that they weren’t talking to me, and I realize I’ve made a major modern faux pas.
But not being a texter gives me the opportunity to do what I like to do best: observe what is going on around me. As I walk along, or ride in the passenger seat of the car, I see streets and sidewalks filled with people who are totally tuned in to their own worlds of business, friends and family. They might as well be anywhere, since where they REALLY are is inside a totally interior world.
There are good things about texting: People can stay in touch with the people they care about (and who care about them) on an almost constant basis. They can move through the harsh, unforgiving world around them insulated from the rudeness and car horns because they are wrapped in a cocoon of love.
But I think they are missing something as well. The world around us can truly be a nasty place: smelly, ugly and pushy. Yet it is also interesting and there is so much to be learned there. I have gained vast knowledge–about myself and others–just from taking a subway or bus or from interacting with someone in line at a coffee shop, insights I would have missed had I been cocooned.
When I was a young Education student, we were being taught about “the gap,” which is the two year lag that so many minority children have in school. Despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators, many of them never catch up. I was riding a subway when I noticed two mothers enter the car, each with a child about three years old. One of them was middle class. In order to distract her child and keep him from fussing, she immediately began to talk about the ads that were festooned above the windows of the subway car. She read them to him, and pointed out the pictures, and discussed what they could mean. Soon he was content and interested.
The obviously poor mother, on the other hand, responded to her child’s fussiness completely differently: She told him to sit still and be quiet and he did, staring straight ahead. She didn’t love her child any less, I’m sure–she wasn’t harsh with him, just firm–but she handled him in a different way that immediately explained “the gap” to me in a way no classroom instruction ever could have done.
Another time, I was riding a bus. This was when I was a young student in the Gurdjieff work, in which we are taught to be “awake.” While sitting there, I “woke up” and realized I had been totally immersed in the kind of thoughts that tend to whirl around in my head: recriminations about what I’ve recently done and obsessions about what I’m going to do in the near future. I stilled my mind and sensed my body, as we had been taught to do, and looked around at the subway car, where I saw scenarios being enacted all around me. When you go to the theater, you sometimes see a semi-transparent screen, called the scrim, being raised just as the play starts. When it’s down, you see the actors dimly, but once it’s raised, you know the play has begun.
When I began to notice what was going on around me in that bus, it was as if the scrim had been raised: People were talking with one another, and while I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I could tell what was going on by their gestures and expressions. I saw other people sitting alone and if they were elderly, I wondered if they were lonely old lions whose battles were almost over. If they were young, I thought of them as the vibrant young upstarts who were ready to fill the old ones’ shoes. In the midst of all this drama, I suddenly thought, “Sitting in this bus is like attending a Shakespeare play!”
When I came out of my coma almost 6 years ago now, I was given the message You must live out of love and I look for opportunities to do this. I was sitting with Whitley at a table in our local coffee shop, which is always terribly crowded because they make excellent coffee. Since I wasn’t immersed in texting, when we were about to leave, when I noticed a young mother with a baby carriage standing in line. I remembered my days of pushing around a heavy stroller and thought, “She’ll need a seat and she doesn’t have a chance of getting one here.” Part of me told myself to mind my own business, but another part saw the chance to do something good, albeit in a very small way, so I told Whitley to stay seated while I walked up to her. I gestured towards my husband and said, “When you get your coffee, take it to the table where that man is sitting. We’re about to leave, but we’ll wait until you come so you can have the table.” She was very grateful, and this gave me the chance to make a small gesture of goodwill that could (perhaps) make up for some of the unkind things I’d done that day, many of which I probably hadn’t even noticed at the time I did them.
I would have missed all of these adventures, and the insights that came with them, had I been texting or talking on the phone, cocooned in a world of my own. Since texting and talking are not things that will go away, it makes me wonder what the future world will be like. On one hand, it will be much more intimate, as we stay in touch with our loved ones throughout the day. But it will also be much more distant, giving us the ability to pass others without thinking about them at all. We will no longer need to think about who those feet we are stepping past on the bus belong to or who is behind the wheel of that car that cut us off before we honk our horn at it. The daily drama will be gone as if the scrim was lowered, obscuring the action taking place onstage.
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