Rushing along a crowded sidewalk yesterday, I realized that in the past few years, I have almost entirely stopped looking up when navigating the city. My go-to move has become speeding along with my head bowed towards my toes, or engulfed in something deemed vaguely important on my cell phone. Occasionally, I will look straight ahead, but rather than really registering what’s in front of me, I’m looking through people and things, solely making sure that I won’t crash directly into them.
So, yesterday, I forced myself to look up and spell out what I was seeing, talking to myself essentially as a newborn. I made an effort to register the nuanced facial expressions of passersby, to eavesdrop on conversations taking place around me, to notice what the buildings I was constantly running in and out of actually looked like from the outside. It sounds simple, maybe even vapid or silly—but an immediate sense of relief overcame me. And I’m much more cynic than good-vibes-guru, so I’m going to posit that my experience was pretty legitimate, and one we should probably all return to more often.
As I walked by a boutique I never pay much attention to, I noticed a great leather satchel in the window and immediately had the urge to touch it. “Wow, leather,” I thought—like some sort of alien just in from life on Mars. The sensation was not unlike being at a museum and having to resist running your fingertips along all the dried paint before your eyes. I began thinking about how most of the clothing items I see these days are flat-rolled on a screen in front of me. And though the pictures online are increasingly vivid, they just don’t compare to seeing a product in the flesh.
With everything available to us on the Internet, it seems, we’ve begun avoiding even the most mundane experiences of daily life, somewhat to our detriment. I was staying with my mother last night and when she suggested watching a movie together, on a television (remember those?), I had an instantly negative reaction. But, the computer, I thought—there’s so much there to explore! Why step away from it for a dull movie?
But, able to acknowledge my addiction getting the best of me, I forced myself to retreat from my lonely screen and opt for the one that I could share with another person, from a bit of a distance. And it felt great—to suddenly not be so tethered to all the conflicting enchantments of the World Wide Web and to actually experience a piece of culture with someone else, rather than just my inner dialogue. It’s crazy to think that this felt novel, when just years ago it was commonplace…and I’m sure for some of you who are better off, it still is.
I’m in no way anti-Internet—I will proudly call it my mistress until my final days on earth. But I want it to be just that, a side interest, not the center of my orbit. Because when I let it invade my worldview so intensely, I lose sight of my real world-view. I forget the simple pleasure of a rugged leather bag in a shop window, the way its texture ignites an animal impulse in a way that HD images just can’t. I forget about the gigantic population surrounding me, the million shades of life, and settle for what I know and find familiar, and that alone. I forget that sometimes it’s really nice to check out from that world with someone else, to sit still for two hours—rather than clicking away—and really absorb a movie, sharing your thoughts with one another along the way.
This is no revelation, of course, and many have written of their similar experiences before. But like most advice, it doesn’t really catch on until you force yourself to make it worthy of your time.
Image c/o Hanna Stefansson