In which I rant about travel and technology

Three grey day hours of delay in the Nashville airport, two caffeine-grabbing stops at Starbucks, and one restive ramble through terminals C and B had me in a serious state of mental exasperation last week. Three glorious hours of quiet, albeit unexpected, had been dropped in my introverted lap and I couldn’t do a thing with them. My brain was jammed with mental white noise, every channel of thought scrambled by the dash through early morning traffic, the monkey dance required to make it through airport security, and then, this sudden space of free time. I had tried my old steady; reading. Too fidgety. Same with writing. I tried to be quiet, to draw inward to those silent spaces at my core. No luck. I tried to pray. Even worse. Time sat in front of me with a grey, blank face.

So I draped myself in a sharp-boned chair under one of those wall size airport windows and watched the planes glide in and out like silent white giants. My eyes were red with lack of sleep, my brain was buzzing with it.  I was too exhaustedly restless to think up anything to do but watch the TV blaring another cycle of “breaking” news over my head. I looked around; everyone near me had a cell phone or iPod in their ears. They stared ahead, unseeing. I glanced down. There sat my plucky black Macbook. I stuck my book and journal back in my bag, pulled out my headphones. The impulse to flip my Mac open, find an online show or lose myself in cyberspace, was an itch in my fingers. I reached for it. Anything to distract me from feeling distracted.

Yikes. My idealistic self came spluttering to life. What was so wrong with me that suddenly, I couldn’t think of a thing to do but watch TV? Of all things in the world, mindless submersion in electronic entertainment is my pet peeve.  I have spent endless hours and a ridiculous number of journal pages in outrage at the amount of time my culture, and sometimes me, wastes on TV. We could be thinking, writing, cooking, carving, weaving, planting, loving, dancing… and here I was about to succumb to the temptation of the screen. What had brought me to such a state?

At that moment, I remembered Neil Postman’s arresting book, Technopoly. Bear with me. When I read it a few years back, the first thing that struck me was his explanation of the way that every new technology changes the shapes, needs, and spaces of our lives. Inevitably, an old way of existing is displaced by a new one. Fine and good, yes? Maybe not. The example that startled me into a keener understanding was his account of the written word as a new technology. As a lover of books who considers all things bookish to be old-fashioned and good, I was startled to read of how writing displaced the grand, oral tradition; the bardic art of poetic memory, of epics sung round firesides. To write something down is a wonderment, but it did replace an ancient way of remembering that was immediate, poetic, and highly communal.

The reason I remembered this in my airport reverie was that I had the abrupt realization that I was experiencing exactly what he was talking about. I watched, wide-eyed, as another line of toe-tapping travelers ducked into a tunnel to be whisked round the world, and I knew that my restless brain, my impulse to mindless entertainment, was a direct result of the processes of technology that Postman described.

Travel, as we moderns know it, is a technological innovation. What does it enable? Global movement. Business. Adventures. Connection with people halfway round the world. But what does it change? Our use and experience of time. Our connection to home and the rhythm of work, rest, play, and creation that we live within is disrupted and we are faced suddenly with what I’ll call vacant time. Normal life is suddenly suspended by the need to be in transit.  For me, this sort of time is on the rise, not only from airport jaunts, but also from the vast amount of time I find myself spending in the car, a habit shared by most people I know. We as a culture are living more and more in spaces of transition; hours that take us to and from our spaces of living, yet somehow don’t feel like real life themselves. Vacant time.

So what is the natural impulse when confronted with such emptiness? To get through it as quickly, and painlessly as possible. Boredom has never been something the human brain tolerates with equanimity. And if we don’t have recourse to the tools, stability, and quiet needed to accomplish our usual work, relating, or creating, what happens? We need to be entertained. We need some form of transportable distraction that will fill these empty hours, and allow us not to feel lost. Hello virtual reality. Hello TV and iPod, cell phones and endless sessions on the internet. Hello to me, perplexed in my metal airport chair, bewildered and bullied by the forces of technological change.

I know you’re probably wondering why this seems so vastly important to me. It’s just a few airport hours, after all. But hours add up to days, and days to years, and years to lifetimes. Time is God’s gift to me, and the way I use it is my answer back to him. In the airport, I forgot this. I was tired, distracted, and unaware of what had made me so.  Life happened to me that day, instead of me happening to life. That makes me a little afraid, and then, indignant. I don’t want to spend my life, even bits of it, with a soul disconnected from the people around me, the earth under my feet, the moment by moment possibility of doing something creative or good. My ideals mean nothing if I give up the fight to fill my hours with meaning. I don’t want forces outside my self to determine how I use the drip by drop flow of my precious, numbered minutes on this earth.

Epiphanies happen in strange places. I decided that day that I want to become accountable for the empty spaces of time which modernity hands me. My travel schedule won’t change, in fact I love it. Good grief, I’m the girl who named her car Gypsy because that’s what I wanted to be. But none of us gets any practice hours here on earth. To let time come to us, and then depart in vacancy is a waste, a sort of death. I want to require the same level of creativity, love, and wonder of myself in travel that I do when I am at home. I’m just beginning to figure out how. All I know is that nothing, not even airports and freeways and hectic hours should be able to shove goodness out of any given minute in my life.

What do you think?

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20 Comments

Filed under Irrational Irritations, Thoughts Thunk Much Too Late At Night, Travel

20 responses to “In which I rant about travel and technology

  1. Amen, Sister Sarah! I don’t think that’s an “irrational” irritation at all! I hope we can spend some precious minutes catching up sometime soon. 🙂

  2. Sunshine

    This made me squirm in my seat. I am SO guilty of feeling up the in-between minutes with something – anything to distract me.

    *sigh* this also made me realize God’s gift to me with time flows over to my children – may a moment not past that I am not resolved to live fully, engaged and to let them know in a way that they can FULLY know that I love them SO very much and that God created them and loves them unending and unfailingly. THANK you for this post – what a gift – with that said let me scoot off here and go put into practice what I just learned! Sunshine

  3. Kate

    Thank you – a eulogy to all the dead and wasted time that has passed into oblivion. Truly, it is a tragedy; this is something that we Christians can forget, to “redeem the time because the days are evil”. We dare not let those precious minutes slip and vanish (mindless submersion in electronic entertainment is my bosom enemy, too)! Thank you for the reminder to live, not just exist, in every moment!

  4. Amen and Amen! The moments are precious, and how great a tragedy it is when we who have the opportunity for abundant life, life to the full, accept mediocre life, as if simply passing time is the highest and best use of our lives. Thanks for the reminder and affirmation.

  5. Potter's Clay

    Wonderful insights! Discomforting, to be sure, but thought-provoking. If there were a verse about “redeeming the words,” your writing would be a perfect example of it.

    I, too, couldn’t help but recall Paul’s exhortation to us about “redeeming the time” (NKJV). The word picture is that time is in captivity to the evil world, but we can pay a price to buy it out of slavery and set it free for God’s use. The word for time is kairos, which has in view not minutes (chronos) but “the time” we are given. It’s about a mindset toward the time we are given in life by God (which recalls Moses’ words to “teach me to number my days.”)

    Your “rant” reminds me that I have to pay a price to redeem my time. Time is God’s gift to me; redeeming it is my gift to God. Thanks for the redeeming reminder.

  6. Heather

    Thank you. I agree. But don’t forget to balance your passion for wise use of time with leaving openings for serendipitous and spontaneous things to happen. Sometimes you sit at the computer and come across the loveliest thing….like your post!!! Sometimes you veg in front of the TV and have the coziest moment with someone you love.

  7. Amen, and amen! Thanks for sharing. Don’t forget: ‘Lord, have mercy.’

  8. Having been in an airport recently WITHOUT any electronics to my name, I saw zombies galore. (Even little ones were duly “plugged in.”) Then I pulled out my book and enjoyed the peaceful surrounds.

    I guess you could say I plugged into an “UNplugged” escape.

  9. Charise

    Amen. It is too easy to miss out on the joys of life because we are mixed up in life. You said it much better! Thank you for the reminder!

  10. Thank you, lovely post and so true! (It’s one reason we do not watch television at all, though we do watch films!) Once we were in the airport waiting for the first leg of a long trip to Finland, and I was laughing because *everyone* else had something electronic–cell phone/blackberry/laptop/ipod. My husband and I were sitting there doing the crossword and talking about the adventure-to-be, and it is still a sweet memory!

    You are eloquent. I particularly liked the penultimate paragraph! From one idealist to another–thank you!

  11. A wonderful post… even if I did watch a TV show on my computer today. 🙂

  12. Lillyput90

    WOW! I never really thought anything of filling in time with electronic devices, I mean in an airport, you would do it because there is just simply nothing else to do (except go and use the very hygenic bathrooms twenty bazillion times because you are bored). I do think, on a different note, that we should bring back the bards! I think sitting and listening to lays, songs, sagas and long epic tales in front of a roaring fire would be THE ideal way to spend an evening (I guess it’s Rivendell for me then:)!

  13. Yes! And this is why I love to travel with children! It can be tough when they’re tired and cranky, but it can also be great fun. I know not everyone has the chance to do that, but even without children present, you can learn to travel like a child. The few times that I’ve been away from mine, I have had a constant stream of thoughts, telling me what they would be asking about, what would fascinate them, what they would do. . . . That helps me to really ENJOY the long seemingly empty hours of a trip.

  14. Eli

    Hi Sarah-Love this post. I too am a big fan of Postman. He was very wise about the dangers of “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. I have been a ranter about electronics, however, fine myself in a place of numbness concerning it’s dangers. It is certainly an escape. Thank you for the reminder that there is no dress rehearsal in life. May Jesus be my escape…..

  15. Ashley

    Dear Sarah,

    Thank you for these words and not only your words, but your passion and conviction behind them! They brought life and inspiration to go back to what is real and to leave the mind-numbing, disconnecting machinery behind. I love that you ranted and I was right along with you- rant, rant, rant. And then the good part- the raving about Jesus, His life in us, family to love, others to serve, His beauty, His goodness. Thank you for taking the time to write such truths of your heart.
    Ashley in Texas

  16. Sarah

    Really great thoughts you all. I’m glad you agree!

    Potter’s Clay- I love that about redeeming the time. As if each minute were something to be won back with care. I think Madeleine L’Engle talked about chronos vs. kairos time, saying that chronos was simply the passing of minutes, while kairos was the time in which our spirits were truly alive.

    Heather- Oh, I agree. I love serendipity, I love moments of life opening up into unexpected beauty. I actually think though that there is more room for spontaneity in a life where time is carefully valued. I find that too much media or technology streamlines time, boxes it up and steals its creativity. My main concern is that if I’m going to watch a movie, that it be a beauty, a goodness, part of a creative life rather than a mindless diversion to escape it.

    Phyllis- travel with children, it makes me smile. I don’t have any yet, but I remember a bit of how I felt traveling with my parents on many trips when I was a child. It was a wonderment. 🙂

    Eli- I have yet to read “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” It too will now have to go on my extensive library hold list.

  17. Sharon

    Hi Sarah, Your words are a joy in my days. Amen to your rantings on technology and filling the time with it. I have found myself, with a few hours at an airport, to finally be still – that I don’t know how to BE still. Yet He calls us to BE still everyday – not just when we get a few hours in an airport because we are finally finished packing, arranging for our travel, through security and perhaps alone. Funny I got a call recently from my brother because he was at an airport with some time . . . and my riding coach because she was at an airport with some time . . . THAT is when they could call me! Not during a regularly programmed day. At least I did get to have an undistracted (on their end) verbal conversation and not an electronic e-mail conversation . . .

  18. Sharon

    P.S. I’m the one with whom you enjoyed raspberry sorbet and dark chocolate ice cream truffles 🙂

  19. What do I think, you ask? I think you are a truly gifted writer, and I know for certain that we would be kindred spirit sister friends if we lived anywhere near one another! This post is simply wonderful Sarah. Thank you. 🙂

  20. Sarah, I couldn’ agree with you more! It’s a good reminder to shake loose the temptation to be a spunge soaking in all the crap out there. Thank you for shairng your pet peeve!

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