25 October 2010

why do i care about their oblivion?

today i went - as i often do - to get my bagel from the bagel shop, and my diet coke from the 7-eleven near campus. It was raining and i had my rubber ducks umbrella in use. Umbrellas necessitate some actual concentration when deployed in any kind of public space; on sidewalks crowded with students and hospital employees, the umbrella dangers are innumerable.
So I got my diet coke (read: lifeblood) and was coming out of the 7-eleven, carefully opening my rubber-ducks umbrella (which is delightfully transparent except where printed with rubber duckies), when a girl deep in text, carrying an enormous umbrella, nearly collided with me. She barely looked up as I dodged to avoid umbrella spokes in my eyes.
Keep in mind that I am very mindful of my own umbrella maneuverings. I saw the girl, head down , intent on her little texty gadget, oblivious to the perils of her enormous umbrella and everyone around her, while she was still quite a few steps away. I stepped over to the right-hand side of the pavement, because in the United States, traffic stays to the right. But lost in a cloud of oblivion, Umbrella/Text Girl ended up weaving around on the sidewalk, which is how I nearly collided with her.

Of course, collision averted, no harm done. Right? I went off with my toasty warm bagel and sopping wet trouser hems to lunch and read and grade papers in peace. Except that, before I got back to the Cathedral, I was enraged. The near-collision, the oblivious texter, wound me right up into a serious red rage of frustration, anger and exasperation.
But then, as I waited for the elevator, it occurred to me - for the first time, I'm sad to say - why should  I care about her oblivion?

My objection to texts and cellphones and ipods and technogadgetry is that it takes people out of their immediate surroundings. They are the tools that create the precise opposite of "living in the moment" or "being present" or simply "observation and reflection." And this maddens me, because one of the things I like best about being a live human is the observation and reflection of being present.

But today I wondered why it matters to me if other people are oblivious. I don't text, I don't walk around with my iPod on at all times, I am not incessantly on my phone. In fact, I am rarely doing any of these things, even in the privacy of my own home. When I'm out and about, I'm paying attention: I'm in the moment, I'm eavesdropping and spying and prying and observing and thinking and wondering and watching the weirdly orange squirrels and contemplating the pointlessness of leaf-blowers and smiling when someone awkwardly skateboards along the sidewalk. So MY attention isn't compromised by someone else's oblivion.

Why, then, does it make me feel such angry frustration?

Is it that these oblivious people are causing inconvenience and, more than occasionally, potential danger, for me and/or them? (i cannot begin to count the number of undergrads who have wandered out across a street, without looking, while busily texting, despite the fact that I am driving down that same street. and I know that if I somehow hit a person with my car, i will never, ever be able to live with myself, and so I am angry that they are not more careful. And I drive like a slowpoke nervous-nelly on streets with high populations of clueless undergrads).

Is it that I want them to pay attention, because there are so many more interesting things in this world than some little LCD screen with badly misspelled and hideously-abbreviated characters on it?

Is it that, in this inattentiveness, this oblivion, this text-centered life, people are contributing to the creation of an intensely boring, unobservant, profoundly incurious culture?

Or am I just a jerk?

I would not be surprised if it turned out that I am somehow just a jerk, being snobby and overly critical. Would I object as much if everyone was going around with their nose stuck in a Dickens novel (one of the really good ones, say Bleak House, or The Old Curiosity Shop)??

It's hard to know. Sometimes I feel badly that I even care about this, because it's such a First World Problem. Except - except - somehow, it also isn't. Because inattentiveness and incuriousness help cause and perpetuate non-first-world problems.

Over the years, at least since I became a Single Person again, I have had to think about what qualities I most value in other people. And more and more and more, with every week, really, the two qualities that keep becoming more and more essential are empathy and curiosity. Unfortunate that they are both in extremely short supply, at least in my small pocket of the world...

1 comment:

  1. I loved this post - I could just see you with your lovely duck umbrella!

    I'm not sure I share your views on technology. Sure, when people wander down the street talking on the phone they're not appreciating the scenery but most of it is an attempt to be connected to other people and I can understand that. So I'm a lot more on the fence about it!

    (I saw your comment over at Lee Wind's blog, which is how I found you.)