Why You Should Do Something Today Other than Read this Blog
If you’ve ever taken a walk in a suburban neighborhood on a pleasant fall or summer evening, an amazing sight is almost certain to greet your eyes. As you stroll along the streets of Suburbia, USA you’ll become aware of the astounding reality that you are almost entirely alone on the street as you walk. Further, as the sun sets, the glow of another light source starts to become more noticeable. You will see waves and flashes of multicolored light streaming forth from the living room windows of the vast majority of houses in the neighborhood, seeming almost to rival the luminescent undulations of the Aurora Borealis. The glow of thousands of televisions lights up the streets of these modern United States.
Ray Bradbury captures a very similar scene in his 1951 short story, The Pedestrian. He writes about Leonard Mead, a resident of the not-too-distant future. Mead loves to go on a stroll every evening, which he has done for years. He takes in the crisp evening air as he walks, letting his feet take him where they will, enjoying the walk for its own sake and not because it achieves a purpose. But in this eerie, futuristic world, Mead walks alone on streets that are silent, long, and empty. Though Mead walks through neighborhoods packed with houses, Bradbury writes, “If he closed his eyes and stood very still, frozen, he could imagine himself upon the center of a plain, a wintry, windless Arizona desert with no house in a thousand miles, and only dry river beds, the streets, for company.”1
The reason for his solitude is revealed as Mead dialogues somewhat ironically with the houses he passes: “’Hello, in there,’ he whispered to every house on every side as he moved. ‘What’s up tonight on Channel 4, Channel 7, Channel 9? Where are the cowboys rushing, and do I see the United States Cavalry over the next hill to the rescue?’” Mead alone of all the residents of this futuristic world does not spend every evening hour watching the “viewing screen” that dominates all the other homes except his own. He alone seems to be alive.
Will this be the reality in A.D. 2053? Probably not. Does Bradbury exaggerate for effect? Maybe a little. After all, some people do still go for walks today, and it seems as if they will continue to do so. Nonetheless, in this story Bradbury is something of a prophet. Enraptured as we are today with all the wonders of technology, we run the risk of forgetting the majesty of an evening stroll.
I am sure that Bradbury, who died only a few years ago, saw the imagined setting of his short story becoming reality as he entered the later years of his life. In 1951 he could hardly have imagined the personal computer, the portable laptop, the tablet, or, above all, the smartphone. But these “viewing screens” perhaps hold our world in a far tighter grip than do the home-restricted viewing screens of Mead’s world.
The smartphone accompanies us everywhere. And when it accompanies us, what does it cause us to leave behind? What has technology changed about our human existences? I think that three of the things that our technological civilization is changing about us, without our even knowing it at times, is that it has caused us to spend less time contemplating the beauty of nature, delving into the truth of good books, and delighting in the goodness of the people all around us.
Nature is a Book of God
Firstly, I believe that our screens are sometimes guilty of taking us away from beauty. It is not uncommon today that even when one encounters someone walking in the park, his greeting to his fellow parkgoer will be ignored. He or she is buried in some surely engrossing smartphone activity, neglecting not just other people but the natural beauty all around.
We drive through nature preserves, safely protected from their raw majesty by our leather seats, air-conditioning, and a continuous deluge of music, which is often meant to distract us precisely from confronting the full face of beauty or its gut-wrenching absence when life seems so empty. Or, how many hours do we spend inside reading the news online, checking social media, and playing video games? None of these activities are bad in themselves, but they certainly change our orientation from appreciating the beauty of the exterior—of nature—to the human marvels that are inside our homes. They direct our attention from the splendor of what God has made to the complexity and ingenuity of what man has made.
Nature, according to Venerable Fulton Sheen, is the third book of God after the Old and New Testaments.2 It is the written story of God’s beauty, and it is sitting right within the grasp of our minds and hearts. And we constantly yearn to contemplate that beauty so that we can be drawn to God.
With an insight that challenges us air-conditioned hermits of today, C.S. Lewis writes, “Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me.”3 When is the last time you got muddy or sat at the roots of tree just enjoying the things that God made to delight and enlighten you? Why don’t we take a lesson from Mr. Mead’s book and go on a stroll outside, even if that means just walking the streets of a city? For even there the glory of the sky reminds us that it is the beauty of God that contains all, not the intelligence of man.
Truth Trumps Trivia
Secondly, the internet allows us to be guilty of preferring trivia over truth. People today spend countless hours mindlessly sifting through the internet’s vast treasuries of “fail” videos, random facts, and all other sorts of digital drivel. In conversation, we are quick to cite brief facts we have learned from the internet or reference a funny video we saw (out of the twenty others we boredly viewed beforehand). Yet, how capable are we of asking and answering the questions that really matter? Sure, you may be able to sing all the verses of What Does the Fox Say? (kudos to you if you can do that), but what answers can you give to the questions of death and suffering or life and its proper joy? Such questions are only appropriately and fully explored in contemplation, conversation, and good books.
Short blog posts don’t ask very much of us. They may make a good point that causes us to think differently or even to alter our attitudes for a little while, but books ask a lot more of us, and because of this they offer us a lot more. Blogs always only capture part of a story or one aspect of a much larger question. Sometimes they capture a key part of that story, but books engage the question in a more comprehensive (though not exhaustive) manner. You commit yourself to a book; you scan and quickly digest an article or blog. But by committing yourself to a book, by reading it when it is boring or disagreeable, you strengthen and sharpen your mind. You broaden your horizons.
When you read a book, you swim in the ocean of truth; when you read a blog, you splash in its tide pools. If you want to train yourself to swim against the current and to set out in deep waters, the tide pool will never be enough.
Let’s go back to our friend Mr. Mead for a moment. In Bradbury’s story, we in fact accompany Mr. Mead on the last of his evening walks. As he nears his house at the end of his walk, a police robot pulls up alongside him and questions his strange activity. The robot asks, “What are you doing out?” When Mead admits that he is walking just for the sake of it and that he doesn’t have a viewing screen in his house, he is promptly arrested for his “regressive tendencies”. He doesn’t fit in with a society that has allowed itself to be wholly consumed by technology.
He also doesn’t fit in because he is a writer. Though, he reflects that he in fact hasn’t written anything in years. After all, people are no longer interested in reading. It’s much easier to just plop in front of their viewing screens and let themselves be washed in constant entertainment and shallow facts. That way they don’t have to bother themselves with all those tricky questions like, “Why do I exist?” “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” I pray that we do not abandon the art, joy, and truth of reading for the sake of our screens and their trivia.
The Dramatic Goodness of the Person
Finally, we are in danger of forgetting the goodness of real persons. With all our capabilities for instant communication, we run the risk of letting those suffice instead of seeking out real personal communication. No social media platform will ever be equivalent to the wonder of interpersonal interactions.
There is no fitting substitute for a face to face conversation, for there we encounter another person in the fullest way that we can. We see the look in her eyes, the expression on her face, and we hear the tone of her voice. We listen as she tells a story, and as she does so, she really tells the story of who she is. The drama of her person is on display through her gestures and emotions. And we are invited to become an actor in the lived drama of her existence. We are reminded that people are not just internet profiles or blog commenters. They are so much more than that, and they are good.
Humans are complex but wonderful. Facebook can never truly teach us this. In conversing with other people we demonstrate our humanity. We learn who they are and who we are. We become properly human, for the human always exists in relation to others and flourishes only in relation to others.
So, close your laptop or turn off your phone today. Go take a stroll and encounter the beauty of nature, swim in the deep truth of a great book, or have a good conversation with a friend. In short, go be human.
- Bradbury, Ray (August 7, 1951). Ascoli, Max, ed. "The Pedestrian" (PDF). The Reporter (220 East 42nd Street, New York 17, NY: Fortnightly Publishing Company) 5 (3). Retrieved 30 March 2015. ↩
- Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ - Complete and Unabridged, Image ed. (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), 267. ↩
- C S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), 20. ↩
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