No, this isn’t an homage to a lost Dr. Seuss story. Let me explain.
When I was a child (the first time around), I didn’t understand why my grandmother disdained opening Christmas presents. She preferred to arrange them around the house as decorations, and if we did convince her to open one, she did it carefully, removing the gift and setting it aside, whereupon she would painstakingly re-wrap the box and restore it to its former glory, sometimes with the gift back inside.
It has taken a few turns of the calendar pages to understand. The gift was immaterial to her. The treasure was the occasion which brought family under her roof, and she wanted to preserve that for as long as possible.
Perhaps there was an even deeper wisdom in play. Maybe she understood something which has almost disappeared from our culture: The realization that much of the joy of living is in the anticipation. Once the box is opened, the mystery is gone forever.
Our culture doesn’t savor mystery in the same way as our grandparents. The sleuth has yielded to the gourmandizer in our craving for immediate gratification. Every mystery must be solved, not in the sense of scientific discovery, but in an effort to feed that addiction. Every box must be opened and every rock turned over. Every wilderness must be mapped and tamed. Our personal mysteries of self, our innermost thoughts and feelings, must be revealed on a regular basis to the hive mind, and our youngest don’t even believe that privacy is a basic right.
Consider how we spend so many precious hours of our days and nights, following events in “real” time. If we think it might snow, for example, our interest goes far beyond the need to know how to dress properly. We want instant updates and an absolute foreknowledge of one of nature’s grand chaotic events. We want to know the results of an election 4 years before the actual event, with a ceaseless flow of opinions updated 24 hours a day as to what those results might be.
We cannot abide uncertainty in any form, and yet we still want to feel like explorers, but without taking a step. We want to feel like scientists without ever opening a book or risking an experiment. And while technology provides us an artificial taste of the rewards of discovery, that taste is fleeting and leaves us hungry, so we need to consume more.
We can be mean when we’re hungry, and when we’re full, we’re farctated philodoxes, in love with our own opinions. Something tells me I should spend less time on social media.
We have created a hive mind of instant gratification, real time events, global awareness and a steady march toward mapping, monitoring and monetizing the entire planet and all its inhabitants, but I don’t think it’s our better angels striving for omnipresence and omnipotence.
I’m reminded of the 1953 novel by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God.” In this classic tale, a group of monks on a secluded mountain have worked for many years to transcribe every possible permutation of the name of the Almighty in their belief that this will one day fulfill the destiny of humankind. The protagonist of the story arrives with a computer that the monks have purchased to facilitate their efforts, which, without revealing the ending, accelerates the story to its conclusion.
The author of Genesis also knew of the human desire to be god-like, and I think that if the story of Babel were written today, the tower would exist in the form of the internet and the technology which has become the connective tissue of our nemesis.
That doesn’t mean I’m disconnecting my modem as soon as I’ve posted this article. We have to be in this world. We don’t have to be “of” it. I would like to know when it’s going to snow again, but only so I can dig the saucers out of the basement so we can slide down the hill. I don’t need to know how many flakes are going to fall or what the masked singer thinks about snow.
I’m also going to spend more time in the woods and less peering at pixels. I’m going to explore some new trails, but not every trail. Every wood should have an unexplored corner to anticipate, and to feed the imagination. I’m also determined to stay just a little bit hungry. It improves the appetite and sharpens the senses. And I’m bound to continue learning. True learning softens opinions, and that allows opinion to yield to faith. Besides, nobody likes a farctated philodox, and there are more than enough of those on Facebook.