January 31, 2013

Too Much and Not Enough

A quick scan of the day's headlines generates a laundry list of things I know next-to-nothing about:  Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearings.  The end of 30 Rock.  The upcoming Super Bowl and attendant NFL controversy about players and brain damaging head injuries.  Ongoing debate about gun control alongside a story about a shooting at an office building in Arizona.  Reactions to the speech the president gave on immigration reform to which I did not listen.  And that's just the domestic news.

There are uprisings in Mali, which, I am chagrined to admit, I could not immediately locate on a map.  An explosion in Mexico.  Israeli airstrikes on Syria.  China's hacking of the New York Times.

The world is such a big place, and nowadays, we can know what's happening in most places, most of the time.  A ten second Google search can bring Washington, D.C., the Middle East, central Africa, Hollywood, Wall Street, or my own Lakewood, Colorado to my computer screen.  I can know who's doing what to whom.  I can attend to the big stories or the obscure.  I can know about people I'll never know, places I'll never visit.

It's completely overwhelming.

I wonder about earlier times, most of human history, really.  People knew only what they heard and saw.  They could access only the parts of the earth within the scope of their ability to travel on foot, maybe horseback or wagon or camel or boat.  Not far.

The people you knew were your family, the people of your tribe, and the people you knew, you knew.  You knew their histories, their habits, their graces, their failings.  You all did the same things, believed the same things.  You lived together and worked together, worshipped together, married each other and buried each other.  That was it.

I imagine that what people knew was manageable in a way that I can only dream of.  Questions, decisions, ideas were delimited by circumstances.  Novelty must have been rare.  People did what their parents did, who did what their parents did.  They did them in the same villages and homes with other people who shared their history and experiences.

I don't mean to idealize the past.  I love the internet, and I would not trade modern medicine, indoor plumbing, central heating and air conditioning, or air travel for the imagined idyll of an earlier time.  Without corrective lenses, I'd long since have walked off a cliff or in front of a speeding chariot.  I would be hard-pressed to outrun, or even outwit, a lion or tiger or bear.  I'm better equipped for the information age than the Stone or Bronze or Iron Age.

Still, I wonder how it would feel to live by candlelight and starlight; to learn by stories remembered and told and retold aloud; to know a few people and things deeply and well; to know who sowed the wheat, wove the cloth, tanned the leather, felled the trees, milled the flour, forged the nails, grew the grapes to press for wine.

As big and small as the world is now, it can be a strangely lonely planet.  Each of us on our own screen, in our own little world, connected with everyone and still alone.  I do what I do; you do what you do.  We live together, but our living is fragmented.  We do not know where we came from, where we belong, where we are.  Poet and Jesuit Gerard Manly Hopkins, in "God's Grandeur" names our condition:  "...the soil/Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod."

We have so much, and so little too.  I have the world at my fingertips and long for a corner in which to belong and to know as my own.  I have shoes, but can no longer feel the earth beneath my feet.

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