Step Outside the Revolving Door
My stomach tightened as my breathing became shallow. A close friend was several paces farther up. We had just crossed a trailhead, and I was looking down. There was no snake on the path and no threat rustling in the brush. No. My phone simply said: “No service.”
This was a summer day in August of 2015 when I went camping for the first time in my life at the age of 26. The stage was Shenandoah, overflowing with beauty at every overlook. And there I was, worried about my phone. Who might need me? What if I was unable to receive a text? Where’s the closest WiFi signal? When could I check the daily news? Why am I venturing deeper into the woods outside the reach of any cell tower?
Since high school, I had become addicted to anything with a touchscreen, all the while losing touch with life beyond the revolving door of phones, music players, email, and television. Join me for a thought experiment. As long as you keep going around a revolving door, you begin to lose awareness of being disoriented. But the second you walk away, you immediately sense that nauseating vertigo.
Do the same with any electronic gadget, and you will also realize the dizzying pace our world and technology have set us on. I certainly did. But don’t worry, you’ll regain your balance, and it’s worth the few moments of head spinning. Here, take my hand…
Let Beauty Knock
We control most of what we encounter each moment — from songs and shows to books and the news — all with the swipe of a finger or click of a mouse. Despite this pervasive power, we cannot manufacture that moment in which beauty knocks, strikes, beckons, or arrives. Beauty and contemplation resist index card recipes.
Moreover, I am unable to speak to you about actual moments of beauty. Beauty is like a bolt of lightning: it never strikes two people equally, let alone one person repeatedly in the very same way. However, together we can explore two ways to be more ready when a moment of contemplation calls.
First, beauty — like lightning — defies prediction. Imagine for a moment trying to spot something unpredictable. You would eliminate any distractions. You would strain to hear, to see, and to sense the scarce and elusive. In a word, you would become receptive.
But what happens with the phone never more than an arm’s length away? Like any distraction, it tends to raise the drawbridge of the spirit, shuttering itself. It outsources our eardrums to earbuds, our vision to photo filters, and our memory to a camera roll. To become receptive to beauty is to hear the sounds, see the sights, and remember the moments fully lived when your phone says “No Service.” I share this with you only having endured the vertigo myself and come out on the other side.
That August day in Shenandoah was the first time I listened in a while — not to music or news sound bites or my favorite shows. No, I heard the notes played by the breeze and the leaves and the birds, the conversation of a friend, and a voice I hadn’t truly heard in a very long while… my own. But you cannot take my word for it; you have to let your drawbridge down.
Second, beauty — like lightning — shrinks from repetition. Do you remember the first time you heard your favorite song? How about the 400th time you heard it on your iPhone? Something changes, or more accurately, recedes. Surely, the song retains the way it first moved you. However, each subsequent play never quite captures that first breath held in awe.
Is it any coincidence that inhalation and inspiration are synonyms? If you can never quite repeat fully that first inhalation — that first inspiration — how do you enter the moment fully? In a word, you become grateful. We enter the moment fully by appreciating what is has to offer as a gift, and not a given.
A Strategic Option Against Endless Distraction
I remember going to concerts my freshman year of college. It was slightly before camera phones exploded on to the scene, invading every moment of life. People actually watched the concerts. Go to any concert nowadays, and people record multiple snippets of the concert. But a concert replayed days later on a 2×4 inch screen will never recreate the moment when you saw your favorite musician walk onstage.
Glued to smartphones and tablets, we grasp at each moment that might be beautiful because we are trying to capture lightning in a bottle. But we all know you cannot capture lightning in a bottle. If you try, you’ll just have burnt air that stinks. In grasping a moment, we dilute the moment and lose it not just once, but twice — in the future when we try to re-create it and in the moment itself as it passes before our eyes.
That August day in Shenandoah I was tempted to keep using my phone after it said “No Service.” After all, the battery was still fully charged! Beyond a few pictures I took at the first overlook in Shenandoah, I managed to slip it in my pocket. I released my grasp on that handheld device, and in doing so, my grasp on that weekend. The full depth of the weekend does not live in my camera roll’s memory. Because of receptivity and gratitude in the moment, it lives within my memory.