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The field I knew: knee-high grass, sticker burrs, sweet dung, scissor-tailed flycatchers diving between cattle for a grasshopper. Across that field was a blue clapboard house, occupied by a woman whose name I no longer remember. In my memory, she is black-haired and squat. Blue overalls. No shoes. I remember no husband, no children’s toys. She kept fish in tanks, I think, and perhaps geckos in terrariums. There were plants under grow lights. Maybe they were ferns.
In that blue house was a round, plastic-covered table that held a jar of Oreos. There was always milk if you asked, poured into smaller jars. In exchange for the cookies and milk, she walked us through the maze of terrariums and aquariums, which is to say, all four of them. (Five-year-old memories make mazes of straight lines.)
My sister and I entered the black-haired woman’s ecosystem more than we should have, maybe. I cannot recall whether I ever told my mother about our visits, but had I, there’d have been nothing out of the ordinary to report. This was the age before every neighbor was a monster. This was the age when neighbor-women created connected ecosystems for their neighbor-kids. These were the days when adults curated safe places for God’s simplest, hungriest creatures.
Since Eve, everyone has come screaming into this world, hungry. It is a world made to nurse our hunger, and we first discover this truth at our mother’s breast. But human hunger isn’t simply a physical thing. It is multi-panged.
We hunger for acceptance, and we find it in our family, friends, and our communities of faith. I found it at the top of a mulberry tree as I pitched the berries down to laughing adults who’d spread a purple-pocked white sheet out to catch the fruit.
We hunger for knowledge, and we pick that from our neighbor’s trees, too. The stocky woman—didn’t she teach me how ferny plants could grow indoors? Uncle Sherman—didn’t he teach me the illusion of removing my thumb?
We hunger for purpose, and our communities grant that, too. Mrs. Burr reminded me that If you apply yourself to reading, there’s nothing you can’t do. And though she was never quite so explicit, Sister Sarto taught The Eucharist is a holy thing but so is a library card.
We are hungry for legacy, for limitless infinity. My grandfather taught me to both love and to curse, and so, I remember him daily.
In days not too far past, the human hungers were met by a community of actual embodied people doing actual things in their bodies. Relational appetites, sexual appetites, appetites for purpose or meaning or legacy could not be digitally satiated in those simpler days.
In his poem, “The Telephone,” Charles Bukowski wrote:
(The Telephone)Will bring you peopleWith its ring,People who do not know what to do withTheir timeAnd they will ache toInfect you withThisFrom a distance
Each person is only given so manyEveningsAnd each wasted evening isA gross violation against theNatural course ofYour onlyLife…
Uncle Buk knew the price of creeping technology, that it’d chew up a great deal of human time. It’d invade our homes, pull us into a sort of disembodied communication that is convenient if not connective. And though Bukowski is no wellspring of wisdom (his checkered history with alcohol and women proves this truth), he still had some things right. And if he could see the instant convenience of social media on demand, of curated communication, of personal brand-building over intentional community cultivation, he might perform a proper poetic exorcism. In fact, were Bukowski alive today, he might write:
Thisself-congratulatory nonsense as thefamous gather to applaud their seeminggreatnessyouwonder wherethe real ones arewhatgiant cavehides them….
Yes, Bukowski might have been mad, but he knew our fits of hunger could not be satiated by technological convenience. He knew we’d need more than our own opinions, egos, and a communicative device to fill our bellies. He knew we’d need something like actual embodied connection, and that the “real ones” would go to great lengths to find it, even so far as some giant hidden cave.
“Although change is part of the working of complex systems, the speed with which human activity has developed constrasts with the naturally slow pace of biological evolution. Moreover, the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to integral and sustainable human development.” Pope Francis, Laudato Si.
In his somewhat controversial encyclical (a ten-dollar word for “letter”) on the environment, Pope Francis issues a warning. Change is a part of the human endeavor, he says, but sometimes that change comes too fast. Sometimes the results are unforeseeable. Sometimes, technological advance leads to an actual-factual breakdown.
Example: In his 2015 Time Magazine article, Kevin McSpadden wrote,
“The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.”
Truth be told, the pontiff’s encyclical wasn’t necessarily addressing the digitalized lifestyle or the effects of things like social media. But the point still holds. The field that holds my east Texas childhood might have turned into a strip mall or feedlot or ghetto for all I know, and who would see it on account of our fixation to the digital ghetto of our own making? How can this be a good thing?
I suspect Pandora’s box has been opened once and for all, that there’s no going back absent some dystopian event. And I’m not naive. I know that times change, technology evolves, and middle-aged men and hard-working women will always lament certain technologies of the age (while technologies like the washing machine will escape scrutiny.) Every generation claims the technology of their day is somehow more insidious, that it threatens to make—or unmake—humans. Still, I wonder: Have we ever endured this sort of rapid technological disembodiment? Can we know the effects of satisfying the very real hungers of our humanity with digital distraction instead of with very real bread, wine, and interconnected relationships?
This piece is not an exercise in digital fear-mongering. But as I’ve written on my blog this week, it seems we’re an isolated, fractured people. So today, examine your own life. Are you trying to meet your hunger—for purpose, connection, knowledge, sexuality—with digital distraction? Or, when your human fits of hunger hit, do you turn to the embodied people of your local community? Do you turn to the church, the bar, the library, the bedroom?
Today, pay attention to your hunger pangs. Feel your need. And then, instead of meeting them with digital distraction, choose to be one of Bukowski’s “real ones.” Go into the world and feast.
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