Overheard in Westwood:
“I’m trying to get more into nature.”
“I’m doing good, I’m just really stressed about posting.”
“At least I’m less depressed than last year.”
Against a backdrop of a biblically proportional man-made drought, the quiet detritus of human anguish that tumbles down empty sidewalks, and a garish peacocking of wealth native to the region of Los Angeles, there’s an ambient sense of unease in the air. Students shuffle past one another, armored in noise-canceling headphones and evading the vulnerability of accidental eye contact with bowed heads. Electric scooters whiz around. Everything passes me by in muted colors and I wonder if anyone else feels the same.
I sit down in lecture and fiddle with my phone, like everyone else. I’m early and I don’t know what to do with my hands. Class begins and I rotate through my messages, social media, and notes. I look up my whims, like “farm commune France,” and imagine a life of a different complexion. I copy down key dates and bolded terms. I shut my laptop and put my headphones on. I walk back to my apartment and offer a smile to anyone I might know on the way. The moment of recognition feels like relief, a flash of warmth that gently spills into the next second. I can see myself, confirm myself, through the eyes of others. I suddenly become acutely aware of the truth in Thich Nhat Hanh’s aphorism: “if you are not really there, nothing is there.”
Talking to my friends, I think we all feel a little lonely, a little lost, assailed by an amplification of everything in the world on a screen, and untethered in this way. We aren’t sure if we’re happy, or if we’re even having a good time. We do a lot to stave off this heaviness — the solution is conveniently tucked in our back pockets. The threat of aloneness, the permeability of silence, the closeness of the questions I don’t want to answer, is less imminent when I scroll my phone on the toilet. I don’t have to confront myself in the bathroom mirror if I am humming “So Long, Marianne” whilst brushing my teeth. I avoid pretending I don’t see you, because I don’t see much of anything at all. The world is both unbearably expansive and immeasurably small in this two-dimensional existence we inhabit in our bathrooms, on our couches, down the walkway, by the kitchen sink.
The idea, or rather, the fundamental truth, of our interconnectedness has been strangled by the constrictions of modern life. The vicissitude of pleasure to pressure has instilled in us all a collective amnesia of what a pleasure it is to be here, now. Unarmed and unadorned. What a pleasure it is to open the door when a friend knocks unexpectedly, to watch a magnificent sunset from start to finish, to greet a flock of birds perched solemnly atop a power line. To see the gnarled branches of a great oak inhabit an eternal unfurling and be startled by its resemblance to a grandparent’s pointing finger, to remember, suddenly and all at once, our roots. The same roots that reach far beyond the depths of the soil under our feet. This principle of interconnectedness extends beyond the earth and oneself. It extends to others. It may be that our survival depends upon this recognition.
We do not have so much time together. It’s a laborious discipline to be generous with our time, generous with our attentiveness, our curiosity and presence. I don’t have a thesis about how we can move forward in our communities in this new age. But I think we can put down our phones and allow the milk of human kindness to run freely through the crevasses of everyday life. Maybe it can begin to repair the fissures.
And just like that, the air is softer. It’s an act of revolution in itself.