I just finished reading The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman. The amazing thing about this book is its elegance. Lightman states enormous truths about the universe, and even our own galaxy, and our own planet, and our own modes of being, with such simplicity. How he strings his words together to form these mind-boggling sentences, I do not know. It is quite obvious to me he is a man of enormous intelligence. He is a wise man, a sage, someone akin to Einstein, who could speak enormities in layman’s terms, so that most every mind can interpret and internalize the resonance of these unfathomable truths. There are few people with this skill, I think. There are few people who release themselves from their own ego in order to preserve the honest beauty of a cosmic revelation.
Okay, now I’m getting a bit wordy.
There is a spectral quality to Lightman’s prose. First, I think of the image he conveys of invisible gamma rays streaming across the atmosphere from dead and collapsed stars. I imagine them a fierce neon blue. Then I think of the subatomic particles of matter moving every which way at all times, particles that I am blind to with my green human eyes. I can see them in my mind only, as those golden things one might see frittering about in the stale air when sunlight streams in through the window. And finally, I think of the most sublime, obsidian canvas of the universe that Lightman so deftly paints, fitted with pockets of luminous galaxies sprinkled throughout the infinite onyx sea like glittering chasms of faerie dust.
In the last chapter, Lightman articulates an astounding revelation about our current state of being. Not that others have not said this before, but they haven’t said it as well. The way Lightman states it below resonates with me most strongly. This is the first time I’ve sincerely digested this thought. “Using technology, we have redefined ourselves in such a way that our immediate surroundings and relationships, our immediate sensory perceptions of the world, are much diminished in relevance. We have trained ourselves not to be present… We have marginalized our direct sensory experience.”
Yes, I do this. I do not revel in the silent repose of dead time, time that is unclogged and unbusied and should be used for rest. Instead, I scroll. I search. I glide through photographs without appreciating a smile or a tender look or a beautiful experience.
Yes, I do this. I hear a ping of an electronic text and if I am unable to answer it right away, I feel uneasy.
Yes, I do this. I marvel at what a wonderful photograph I’ll take as I stare at staggering mountains as they bleed into a cold, rose-colored sunset. I do not look through my eyes. I look through a screen.
“As I stood in line to board an airplane recently, the young woman in front of me was primping in her mirror- straightening her hair, putting on lipstick, patting her checks with blush- a female ritual that has been repeated for several thousand years. In this case, however, her ‘mirror’ was an iPhone in video mode, pointed at herself, and she was reacting to a digitized image of herself.”
When I read this, I felt a twinge of something odd. I have done this myself. I have never thought about it, but thinking about it now, I feel it strange, as if someone has been watching me for years and I just now have sensed she is here, closer than I want her to be. I stare at a digital pixilation of myself, not myself. Who is that girl?
One day a week, I’d like to turn off my phone. Perhaps Sundays. I feel it’s tethered to me like a silver organ, resting heavy in my hands, wanting to filter everything through its cyclops eye. I’d like to be free of it, for a day. Yet if I freed myself of it any longer, I’d break a connection with the majority of my world: my friends, my colleagues, my family, news about the global community. I would be detached from our new, shared, mediated form of experience.