Walking along Columbia Road in the Columbia Heights section of Washington one summer afternoon long ago, a voice entreated me to “…look up.” In fact, it said “Brother, look up!”
I did, and saw a young woman beaming down at me from the window of a third-floor flat. I never for a moment thought the exhortation was meant as an invitation, and it was just as well I didn’t. “You should always look up when you walk,” she said. “Hold your head high.”
I smiled back, said okay, and continued on my way. I knew what she was trying to do, and was grateful, so I resisted the urge to explain I was not that guy, the guy she thought needed encouragement. Whatever had been on my mind that day at the moment she noticed me, not looking up was a momentary lapse.
I started to make all of that the subject of a blog post months ago, but other matters occupied my attention. When trying to decide what to write this month, I thought again about that day, but wasn’t sure I’d make it the subject. To help clear my mind, I took a constitutional through the ‘hood shortly after sunset. Serendipity provided my answer. As I walked along a block of P. Street, a woman approaching from the opposite direction stopped in the middle of the sidewalk just before we were about to pass each other and – out of the blue – wordlessly looked up into the night sky. That was enough of a sign for me.
At the risk of seeming a Luddite, my sometime desire to tell people to look up is completely divorced from any concern about pride or confidence. It is about the ubiquity of electronic hand-held devices and how they seem to make some people lose all sense of their surroundings. To be truthful, my desire at times is not to tell people to look up, but to scream it – particularly when they are headed straight for me. Yes, some have mastered the skill of human radar or sonar or whatever and can whisk right by without missing a step. Others, the more oblivious, require the more observant to move out of their way. As for me, I’m inching ever closer to facilitating pedestrian collisions.
Anyone with a computer has, by now, become acquainted with some variation of the internet meme of families or groups of friends photographed sitting around a table in some restaurant, each member of each group intently looking at his or her own cell-phone screen instead of at one another. On the subway, with its herky-jerky stops and starts, I have marveled at how people would rather check their phones with both hands instead of using one to hold on and avoid finding themselves on the floor. A friend recounts observing a woman, double-parked illegally, sitting in her car looking at her phone. A city ticket writer pulled up behind her and, apparently feeling magnanimous, beeped his horn as a warning – twice. It was to no avail. The woman did not seem to hear him and never bothered to look in her rear or side-view mirrors. She noticed, finally, when he stood at her car writing a ticket.
Many of us are becoming guilty of screen addiction, whether it is the one on our phones, our computers and tablets, or our televisions.You can decide for yourself how sad and disturbing or how inconsequential you find this, but I assure you there will be consequences. How can there not be? There is not one human-made thing in this world that did not have its genesis in a human mind. From our imaginations come much of our reality. Those imaginations are nurtured by, among other things, noticing the world around us: the cardinal sitting high up in an elm, the gargoyle guarding the entrance of an apartment building, the striking beauty walking right towards you, the sunbeams streaming through a break in the clouds that hover low over the city on an autumn afternoon. Just as important, if not more so, is the time spent with our own thoughts. Our minds and our lives, our art and our science, our culture and our capacity to create are diminished in direct proportion to the loss of that which sustains us spiritually.
We all can afford to slow down and look around. After all, though we don’t feel it and, therefore, don’t notice it, we are never not moving. The Earth is spinning on its axis at more than a thousand miles per hour, while orbiting the Sun at close to 70,000. The whole solar system is moving towards the star Lambda Herculis in the constellation Hercules at about 43,000 mph, while – at the same time – moving upwards at 90 degrees to the Milky Way’s galactic plane at nearly 16,000 mph, and orbiting the center of the galaxy at 446,000 mph plus. As for our galaxy, it’s moving through the universe at 1,339,200 miles per hour.
We are not pilots, only passengers (and, perhaps, crew). The least we can do is spend some time enjoying the ride. Just look up.