“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation. …”
— Jean Arp (1887-1966),
German-French sculptor, painter and poet
Sorry, what were you saying? I was distracted.
So were you, just now. And you. We all are.
Do you notice that since cellphones found their way into everyone’s pocket and purse that some people don’t even bother to ask if they’ve reached you at a bad time anymore? They call whenever they feel like it. Either they assume it’s a good time or they don’t care if it’s not.
And they use the same phone etiquette — or lack thereof — when they call you at home as they do if they call your cellphone: no greeting, straight to the questions.
At The Telegram, we get random calls from strangers — people itching to tell you complicated, urgent tales of injustice; people who don’t always say, “Are you busy?” “Would you have a few minutes sometime today to talk to me?”
Now, I’m not complaining about the calls; very often they lead to compelling stories worth sharing with our readers, so please keep them coming.
But I do care, both at home and at work, when people just assume I’m ready, willing and eager to listen to whoever is on the other end of the line at all times.
The truth is, it’s not always a good time to talk. Yet, everywhere you look, everyone’s doing it.
A ringtone chirps in the middle of a theatre performance. Light from a BlackBerry keypad temporarily blinds you in a darkened movie theatre. A jacket hung on the chair at the restaurant table next to yours trembles lightly and you hear a sound like grasshoppers rubbing their legs together. A visit to a public washroom comes complete with one-sided conversation from the bathroom stall next door.
And it’s not just the incessant phone calls that distract us. It’s the text messages, the emails, the Facebook status updates, the steady stream of tweets on Twitter.
Try to convey a simple message to your teenager and you’ve got to get past music blasting through iPod earbuds and daydreams and thumbs twitching to get back to texting.
Go to the supermarket and you’ll see people who have forgotten the pleasures of shopping for food. They no longer enjoy the textures, the colours, the smells.
I love the bumpy feel of lemons and their crisp citrus scent; the satiny slickness of fresh squid on a bed of ice; the saline smell of the lobster tank; an artful display of oysters in their ancient-looking shells.
A whiff of fresh basil can send me into rapture.
Yet there are people who barrel past, power-shopping, grimly gripping their carts and ticking off items on mental lists while speaking in clipped tones into a cellphone. They’re thinking of where they have to be next, of how fast they can get dinner on the table and the dishes washed, or all the other chores that have to be done. They don’t let themselves enjoy the simple act of choosing some of the essentials of life.
At work, a hundred things compete for your time. As I write this, I am listening to music to block out the newsroom noise, checking email, moderating comments on our website, watching news photos tick by on the photo wire — look! There’s Stephen Harper in Ottawa shaking hands with new MP Peter Penashue — and catching snippets of conversation and ringing phones, despite the headphones and the music.
Sure, technology brings many benefits, but it’s like we’re all plugged in, all the time. Life is one big multi-task. We can’t focus on one thing or let ourselves get immersed in the moment.
We can’t bear darkness, or silence.
On Wednesday, the family of an 18-year-old from Pembroke, Ont., spoke out about his death. He was sending text messages while driving and crashed head-on into a tractor trailer on the highway.
In the Canadian Press story, his mother said his phone was still receiving text messages from friends even as emergency crews were responding to the scene.
If that’s not a heartbreaking reminder to us all to unplug ourselves every now and again, I don’t know what is.
My husband is far from being a BlackBerry addict, but even so, he leaves it at home when we’re going for a walk.
What would you rather hear, a songbird warbling in a tree or some jogger’s phone blasting “Bad to the Bone”? Would you rather see a tender green fern unfurling along a wooded trail or read a chain-letter email message forwarded to you by someone you barely know?
We can’t always distance ourselves from technology, nor would we want to. It provides convenience, communication, information and entertainment.
But there are times when we should turn off and drop out of the digital world and tune in to the natural one.
It’s OK sometimes just to breathe.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.