Monday, August 1, 2011

The Meaningfulness of Life, Part 1

Ian and I went to Kentucky for our one-year wedding anniversary in early July.  We visited the Maker’s Mark Distillery and tasted bourbon for the first and last time (it tasted like fire); we walked around the Perryville Civil War Battlefield; and we stayed at an amazing B&B in Springfield, Kentucky, the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln - though Ian kept emphatically reminding me that Honest Abe really belongs to Illinois. We also visited the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, a restored 19th century village scattered with original Shaker meeting houses, homesteads, and storytellers dressed in traditional clothing explaining how folks lived back then.  I’ve already mused about the Village in a previous blog post, so you can probably tell that our visit made quite an impact on me.  Indeed, I revelled in the simplicity of the Shaker lifestyle, their focus on community and family, and the pleasure they took in the relaxed, meditative pursuit of their crafts.  In many ways, their legacy reminded me of the values I’ve elevated in my decision to stay at home.

So as Ian and I walked on the Village’s rolling green Kentucky hills under the cotton-dotted blue sky, I imagined myself as a villager and wondered how my life would be different if I had lived back then. I considered the more obvious differences like wearing bonnets and being celibate like the Shakers (deal-breaker), but the isolation of 19th century villagers struck me the most.  Sitting on a shaded bench next to the gravelly central path, I couldn’t help but wonder: with no forms of mass communication or transportation back then, were life experiences more meaningful?    

21st century Annie sees New York City every day on the Today Show; I can see the sunrise over Mt. Fuji on a live Internet stream; and Facebook shows me my friend’s new haircut right after she leaves the salon.  Nothing is unavailable to me, so nothing really shocks me anymore.  I remember seeing Stonehenge in England a few years ago and thinking, “Yep, that’s Stonehenge; just like the photos.  Let’s go get a scone.”  In fact, the grandest feeling of “oh that’s cool” I’ve had lately followed seeing an iPad commercial on TV - Can you really hold that thing up to the sky at night and have it spell out the constellations for you?  Really?  

But 19th Century Annie has rarely, if ever, left her village, so she would see Stonehenge and gasp in disbelief.  She’d visit New York and feel overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the city streets.  She might have the chance to see an exotic animal in a zoo someday, and she’d be lucky to see the face of a far-away friend once every few years or get a personal letter from her a couple times a month.  Such opportunities were rare back then, and the rarer the opportunity, the more special it becomes.  But I get emails from friends every day rather than a few letters a month; I watched the British Royal Wedding at 5am in central Mexico from my computer; and I've even seen
footage of a nearly extinct snow leopard in Asia on the Internet a few days after it was taken. The Information Age has absolved the world of rare opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know we live in a privileged time in human history.  I love being able to Skype with my friends abroad and hear about world events as they happen; I’m happy you can read this moments after I finish writing it; and I’m grateful for the medical advancements of the past hundred years that have allowed us to get sick and go the hospital rather than get sick and die.  And I know that experiencing something in person does not equate with seeing a picture in a book or a live stream on the Internet, otherwise the tourism industry would be kaput.

But part of me still wonders if the saturation of technological capabilities has diluted life’s pleasures a little bit.  Perhaps nowadays seeing something in person is just a grand expansion on the images we’ve already stored in your head - from books, TV, and the Internet - rather than being a discovery unto itself.  Google Docs just rudely underlined “internet” with a red-dotted line, demanding that I capitalize it to give it the respect it deserves.  It’s right; I should, because the Internet has made available the entire world, so nothing can be a mystery.

So perhaps a simpler life can be a more meaningful one, and maybe spending less is the first step in that pursuit.  I’ll explore that idea in my next post.  Stay tuned.  

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