“as small as a world and as large as alone.”
— e.e. cummings
I spent a little time in the Anglican Cemetery off Forest Road on the weekend, up in an older corner stocked with the almost completely familiar St. John’s names.
It was the perfect sort of October morning to be out, crisp and fresh but still warm enough for shirtsleeves, the leaves separating from the branches on the big trees and falling straight down with that strange, aerodynamic staggering-and-rocking motion it would take a physicist two years and a supercomputer to calculate. (The leaves, though, manage it effortlessly.)
There was sun in among the gravestones, the grass still soaked with dew, and any conversation that there was echoed between the grate of the crows and the sharp gossip of fall blue jays.
The perfect kind of day to ponder just where it is you fit. The kind of day that you can be comfortable with yourself.
It struck me then that, more and more, we’re forgetting how to be comfortable with ourselves.
Now, we are social beings — there is no doubt of that. We like to be seen and be heard, just as we like seeing and hearing others. Some of the best parts of our lives are those spent in concert with other people, dancing the dance that makes us human.
But there’s something to be found in silence, too — strange, small things, perhaps, like the march of sow beetles on stumps or the way robins tilt their heads like humourless uncles trying to find the humour in a particular piece of boreal slapstick.
And silence is something we’re forgetting about. More to the point, being alone is becoming something we can’t stand.
Sunday, as I made my way around the near-empty cemetery, I saw seven single people walking and not one of them was alone.
Five were walking while talking on their cellphones. Two others were wired into their headphones.
It makes you wonder.
There are lots of things to be afraid of. I remember walking asphalt paths on the outskirts of Whistler and being convinced (and terrified) that I was about to run into a black bear. (It didn’t help that every bear in Whistler seems to come to the asphalt trails to go to the bathroom, so there’s bear scat over and over again to pique your imagination.) I’m spectacularly good at being afraid of things that might happen, regardless of how outlandish their occurrence might actually be.
Clearly, I’m not alone in that.
It’s strange, though, that one of those things we fear might end up being stuck alone with ourselves.
Talk to many in the cellphone/text/twitter/social media world, and you’ll find that, without their devices, they feel not only bored and lonely, but sometimes even vaguely apprehensive, as if some critical part of their world has been taken away. It’s not enough to have a means of contact — you also have to be in contact.
The funny thing is that the electronic social world is completely a simulacrum of the real thing: you might have 1,000 Facebook friends, and a mere handful of real ones.
Email is more easily fiction than actually telling a lie to another human being is.
A voice on the cellphone is but one part of the human you’re trying to contact.
The world is full of millions of simple and wonderful things, and every one of them requires a piece — a moment — of our undivided attention.
But we have to be distracted. We’ve made divided attention not only a goal, but a very real need. Addicted to constant contact with others, we’ll buy even the cheapest of hits.
I’m OK with me; I think I’d be quite happy to go out for a beer with myself.
A pragmatist might point out that you started alone and you’ll end alone, even if, like in the back corner of the Anglican Cemetery, you’re surrounded by familiar company, watching from the wings.
Might as well get used to it.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.