During the past two weeks, I’ve been conducting an experiment.
I took a vacation.
A real one, meaning I did nothing. Intentionally, I avoided newspapers, television, radio, social media (mostly) and WiFi, except to check the weather or the elevation of this or that mountain.
Of particular interest was nearby Sugar Mountain. Ski-lifted to the 5,300-foot summit, I joined 100 or so others to observe the Great American Eclipse of 2017, the aptness of which can’t be overstated. What better way to celebrate the end of self-imposed nothingness than with a 100-year event that reminds us of our small-itude.
Being on vacation and disengaging is hardly unique in August, I hasten to say. My respite was notable only for its rarity. Except for time off for unpleasantries such as a family death, illness or injury, I’ve seldom vacationed for two consecutive weeks.
Unplugging from the susurrations of our hyped-and-buzzed world was a challenge. Frankly, I wondered whether I would continue to be without knowing what was going on in the world — or whether wakefulness would be possible without the demands of perpetual deadlines. If we are what we do, then what am I without the news?
After 30 years of writing columns — as of right now, actually — I’m easily an addict who needs a deadline the way normal people need oxygen. Tension, stress and adrenaline are my constant companions, friends of a sort that keep me motivated, engaged and reasonably punctual. Giving them up, ignoring the daily perambulations of the human experience and, most important, trying to sort out their meaning wasn’t easy. For a deadline-aholic and a compulsive seeker-outer burdened with insatiable curiosity, unplugging required a massive cohesion of will and discipline.
This isn’t to say I was completely oblivious to the world’s goings-on. Given people’s delight in sharing news, I was blandly aware that North Korea was escalating, along with the president of the United States, but figured I’d know soon enough if things took a bad turn. No need to tune in.
I’d known pre-vacation of the eclipse. And dinners with family and friends forced knowledge of the White House staff changes, including the exit of chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. I found, however, that such tidings were of little interest. After a few days wandering South Carolina’s beaches and North Carolina’s mountains, I was becoming a human puddle, imperturbable and immune to the emotional weather of Washington, D.C.
It is good to get away and to be reminded that, in the main, what most people care about are human stories, the meaning of things, the purposes to which we attach ourselves, how others muddle through. Yet, increasingly, we spend too much time obsessing over news nuggets, much of it generated by a nameless, inorganic, soulless, buzz-fed entity that exists only if you seek it out. Social media, like the insect world, exists whether you see it or not. And it’s very-very-very busy.
This virtual world into which we umbilically plug ourselves as fetuses to nourishment is both unique to our times and predictive of a future that is disconnected from all previous history. We are between ages, which probably explains the explosive instability around the globe.
Not since early humanoids first stood upright and began the march toward civilization have people been so disengaged from each other as well as from the natural world. While parents battle young children addicted to iPads, iPhones, iEverything, terrorists create bloody havoc and marauders topple historical monuments to placate contemporary anxieties.
In the midst of such chaos and the potential for doom, it’s little wonder that a solar eclipse captured our imagination. Even though a total eclipse of the sun occurs somewhere on Earth every 18 months, this one was extra-special primarily because it was ours, stretching over a 70-mile-wide swath from sea to shining sea.
But mainly, the Great American Eclipse was needed — not to make America great again but to make it real. In an age of narcissism and alienation, the eclipse provided not a rare event in the millennial scheme of things but a rare moment shared by humankind throughout the ages.
Shielding our eyes from the retina-burning infrared light of the magnificent and terrifying sun, we turned our faces to the moon and remembered that out yonder and beyond, there is something far greater than ourselves. What a relief.
And, yes, it is good to be back.