No Gettysburgh Tweet
I always thought that slaves in America were confined to a never-ending existence of unrelieved dawn-to-dusk forced labor. Turns out I was mistaken, at least in part. Many 18th century slaves in the south worked in a task-based system. When they finished their task, usually hoeing a quarter-acre plot, they were done for the day. These slaves then proceeded to work their own fields, growing produce for sale or barter. Even slaves escaped the hoe. Not so, we.
The 21st century hoe comes in the form of the now ubiquitous and eminently portable communication devices that through their very portability keep us tied to the drudgery and ultimate curse of never-ending contact defined as “work” or “keeping in touch.”
I live and work in an urban environment where people walk everywhere and the number of people totally absorbed in a tiny screen as they literally stumble through life is astonishing. I assume, with good reason, that millions of others are similarly absorbed while driving. A good portion of those not reading or texting are yammering away sharing their most intimate thoughts with whichever complete stranger has the misfortune to be within hearing distance.
By the way, this is not a post about the physical dangers of walking/driving/talking/texting or the boorish behavior of those who do, but rather a brief musing on the loss of free time for the mind.
Anyone age 30 or older can conjure up a memory of a time when working and keeping in touch were voluntary activities requiring some effort and where the expectation to do either was tempered by the realities and constraints of time and space. Either the form of the work did not lend itself to seamless activity or contact and connection had to wait until one arrived at a place. Ah, for the good old days.
That distant past was filled with enforced periods of work-free silence and non-contact where our minds were free to wander and take in the random scenes of life around us. We observed, mused, recoiled, engaged and wondered at the complexity of the world we passed through. Those days are long gone. We are now incessantly and obsessively absorbed and engaged in an electronic and virtual world where the real one passes by unnoticed as we sneak glances for the incoming message or blurt out, “I have to take this call.”
If there is a mystery to life found only in the unengaged and “in-between” moments, most of us will never see or feel the power of it as we have blindly forfeited that opportunity in order to remain connected to an equally absorbed society. Imagine the horror of “waking up” in your sixties to the realization that you knowingly strolled through life in a trance of your own devising.
This all makes me think of times past and how the world might be different had our forbearers been similarly plagued with our “connectedness.” I imagine Abraham Lincoln on that long and late autumn train ride up to Gettysburg in November of 1863. He realizes that this is the moment to redefine the purpose of the titanic conflict and he struggles for the exact phrases to give meaning to the war. A few words are typed on his iPad but he is constantly bedeviled by incoming texts from Secretary of War Staunton and cell calls from Nicolay and Hay about the waiting crowd at Gettysburg.
Aware that a great moment is in the offing and that the golden trees gliding by will silently offer their inspiration and meaning, he turns both cell and iPad off, takes a scrap of paper from his up-turned hat and settles down to work.