16 – #LISTEN

Once upon a time, a man and a woman met and fell in love.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:

Few couples had a more perfect match, aligned in their minds, bodies, emotions and spirits. Enjoying the same things. Practicing the same hobbies. Sharing the same dreams for the future, built around a common love of fire-spinning. The ancient Maori art of poi, practiced for centuries by the Polynesian settlers of New Zealand, became the central focus of their relationship. Expert fire-spinners themselves, they traveled around, teaching others how to do it (safety first!), bringing their love of poi to people across America. They moved within an intense and close bubble of love: for one another, for their life together, and for poi.

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

“Then he bought a BlackBerry. We’d be together – traveling somewhere, maybe on the train, or a bus, or even in a car. And we’d be talking. But the whole time he’d be looking down, into the Blackberry. Reading or typing. Typing and reading. And every so often he’d look up and say, ‘I’m listening’.”

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor any man ever loved.

You only say ‘I’m listening’ when it’s obvious you’ve tuned out, after you’ve turned away from the object of your affection, and toward something else. Homer Simpson once pronounced television, “Teacher, mother, secret lover,” but television has been supplanted – overrun – by another. The temping devil in the palm.

“We traveled together, but it wasn’t the same. We were close, physically, but he was somewhere else. Always looking down. Always listening to other voices.”

Each of them now had to contend with the demands of another. He divided his attention between the real, immediate and embodied presence of his love and the alluring, seductive pleasures of connection. She had to fight back feelings of rejection, that she had been cast aside for a new – and more interesting – relationship.

“We flew to Peru to teach fire-spinning. We got off the plane, and there was no mobile service. Anywhere. For a whole week. It was like getting him back again. All of him. It was wonderful.”

Beyond the reach of the signal, old connections can reassert themselves. Where the chorus of voices ceases, it becomes possible to listen to the softer sounds of hearts. In the silence, older voices can be heard, just as demanding, and far more important.

A few years ago, I walked down the street, heading off to lunch with friends. I pulled my mobile out, and typed a text message, without really giving a thought to the fact that I was at that moment walking into an intersection, and across a street. Not until I heard the rumble of car wheels (over the music playing through my earbuds) did I look up and see a taxi, with a somewhat vexed-looking driver behind the wheel, waiting for me to make it to the opposite curb. I had walked into an intersection, across the street, in front of a taxi, all without thinking. Too bound up in the task at hand (literally) to notice the danger I had put myself in.

Many of us have done something this stupid, either on the street, or behind the wheel. Something about the mobile has burrowed its way past all of our rational self-defenses, the things we learned when very small (look both ways when you cross the street, pay attention when others are talking to you), leading us to act like idiots, or children who have not heeded any of our lessons on how to behave. We have abandoned social nicety – and self-preservation – because our mobiles demand it.

Another time, I saw a mother with a toddler in a stroller. They waited on the opposite corner of an intersection as we all waited for the crossing signal. Once that signal came, this mother rolled the stroller off the curb – and nearly dumped her child into the street. If that child hadn’t been strapped into the stroller, it would have hit the pavement, hard. Undeterred, the mother reversed direction, backed her stroller onto the curb, and attempted the maneuver again – with precisely the same results.

At no time during these abortive efforts did this mother ever take her mobile away from her ear. It absorbed her attention, so much so that she put her own child in peril – repeatedly – rather than simply putting the mobile aside long enough to negotiate the crossing.

The desire of a mother to protect her young is fundamental, instinctive behavior, not just in humans, but all the hominids, primates, and mammals. Mothers nurse their young, keep them safe, and defend them with their own lives, if need be. Or did, until the mobile came along, and provided the perfect interruption to two hundred million years of evolution.

Something about the mobile is so potent, attractive and demanding, that we abandon our loves, our lives and our children to it. It speaks so loudly that we have no choice but to listen, orienting ourselves around attending to its needs. It demands our attention, and in so doing, drains us away from the world within arm’s reach, for the world we hold in our hands.

That handheld world encompasses all of the rest of us. Against this totality, nothing could hope to complete. Instead, we find ourselves drawn apart from those closest to us. We’re listening to other voices. We feel guilty about this, but find ourselves helpless to resist.

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