Recently, driving through north Denver, I saw a young man standing at a bus stop with wires dangling from his ears. He danced and sang, tuned into music unheard by anyone else. He was physically alone in a crowd, but together with his music.
When I rode the train in Portland in the mid-90’s, cell phones were relatively rare. I remember sitting on the crowded train reading a book during rush hour. Most of the commuters sat in respectful silence. Occasionally a pair would strike up an amiable conversation. Mostly we were alone, together.
One day, though, a man answered his ringing cell phone. He began a conversation, his voice pitched at least twice as loud as anyone else in the car. The rest of us sat with our eyes averted, trying to ignore the conversation. The man gave his full attention to his unseen companion. He was alone in a crowded car, together with his distant friend.
I think about the miraculous technology of the last two decades, much of it designed by brilliant inventors who have few social skills. Silicon Valley, I’ve read, has more people diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Asperger’s Syndrome is a mild form of autism, marked by a tendency to see themselves as superior to others. They have little to no need for social interaction. They are fine, and in fact enjoy, being alone.
In a crowd, they are at ease in the comfort of their own minds. They are alone in the midst of a herd – alone together. The technology developed by these brilliant intellects encourages other people to become isolated in their own minds, too.
Now when I walk into a coffee shop, I find most people “plugged in.” They are texting, chatting on the cell phone, or typing e-mails – all with some absent person. We sit together in the coffee shop, alone in our thoughts, engaged in some distant conversation.
Don’t get me wrong. The ability to connect on a global level is an extraordinary gift. I see that connection as a physical expression of our unlimited psycho-spiritual connection. The world wide web is an externalization of our spiritual oneness.
In that physical expression of our unity, though, we often lose touch with present place, present time. I am physically in the coffee shop in Denver, yet my mind is loitering in Oklahoma, Portland, or Paris. I’m really nowhere at all.
What’s different now, compared with the days of letter writing? Pace is one of the factors. I give myself fully to writing the letter, connecting in mind and spirit with that person. I post the letter. He or she opens the envelope days later and absorbs those words and feelings, digesting them before writing back. Letter writing involves reflection and delayed gratification.
Now all of those nuances happen in nanoseconds, with the pop-flash of electronic coding speeding across the web. Are our minds and hearts, though, ready for this speed? Do we fully digest before trying to absorb another barrage of information?
I read that every day 175,000 new people start blogging on the web. Who the hell are they talking to? The staggering crowd of 345 million people, alone in front of their computers, who read blogs every day.
Plugged in as I am to the world of technology, I’ll still answer e-mails and chat on the cell phone when required. I’ll aim, though, to bring as much presence as I can to those electronic interactions. I’ll focus on connecting with place and time, as well as my distant companion.
I also want long stretches of connection and interaction in current place and time, so that I can be nourished by roots firmly planted in the present. In truth, this place, this time can nourish me only when I am rooted in the present.
So my exploration is to bring presence to my distant communications, full awareness to the strokes on the keyboard and my thoughts as they wing to distant places, and attention to the autumn winds sending leaves scurrying down the driveway.
Perhaps with this dual awareness of present time and distant place, I can truly connect; then, we will be together together, in true connection, nourished by each other’s presence.