Thursday, February 24, 2011

Obliviousness, Compulsion, Lost Opportunity

It was a beautiful morning in Central Florida. An unexpected bank of fog had moved in from the nearby Atlantic shrouding treetops and houses. Even the nearby expressway whose bridge cuts through the middle of Lake Underhill, laden with rush hour traffic, was only in partial view, the lights of the cars and the sounds of the motorists hurrying to work the only evidence of that major highway. It was as if this heart of our city had been painted with a soft touch paintbrush.

From the treetops and the telephone lines, a host of birds sang their morning praises to G-d: “The heavens are telling the glory of G-d, and all Creation is singing the song. Come dance in the forest come play in the fields. And sing to the glory of the Lord.” (Marty Haugen, Canticle of the Sun, 1980). And temperatures in the low 60s made it a very comfortable morning to be outside with that Creation singing its praises. It was a beautiful start of a new day. It was a morning made for a walk.

But the woman who briefly acknowledged me as she crossed Lake Underhill Drive to the walking path around the lake never saw that beauty. As quickly as her “Good morning” was off her lips she was back to her texting, weaving blindly down the sidewalk, occasionally looking up to avoid other pedestrians.

It was fortunate she looked up just when she did as she was just able to avoid another pedestrian coming the opposite direction, just as oblivious to the unfolding beauty around her as the texter. With her ears plugged with an IPod, she had no idea that the birds were singing. And she did not hear my “Good morning” as I passed.

What was striking about the texting woman was the complusiveness of her behavior. I watched bemused as she would try to put her cell away for a few seconds before quickly pulling it back up to type in yet another round of grammatically and syntactically impoverished gibberish, anxious to be noticed by someone else, desperate to be affirmed even if in only the most rudimentary fashion. As she did so, the experience of an unusually beautiful morning passed her by unnoticed.

Of course, neither woman has an obligation to put down their technological toys and engage the real world. Neither has a duty to be present, conscious and undistracted. Neither is required to actually spend time with themselves alone though the aversion to do so might prompt them to ask what it is about their own company they find so unbearable. There is no law criminalizing shallowness or self-focus.

But what quality of life is endured in a world of constant distraction? What value of experience in a world where the soft touch of fog, the singing of the birds and the comfort of the cool morning breeze cannot even be acknowledged, much less fully experienced? And what does engagement in such compulsive behavior in the face of the losses such human beings must endure suggest about the quality of their lives?

Again and again, it appears to me that the degree to which human beings distract themselves seems coincident with the degree to which the crisis our Earth experiences from the harm our carelessness, selfishness and arrogance have inflicted upon it deepens. The greater the crisis, the greater the distraction. And again and again, it occurs to me that this is a pattern of behavior we have less and less luxury to indulge.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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