It’s become a cranky old person cliche to complain of young folks at live events watching their phone record the show rather than watching the show itself. We see it everywhere, parents spending their child’s birthday party capturing every moment in photos and videos, people at five-star restaurants taking pictures of each plate of food as soon as it arrives. I’m as guilty as anyone, and in many cases, I’m glad to have those pictures and movies to remind me of things I’ve enjoyed.
This afternoon, I was doing some research for a bi-weekly poetry study with my dad. As I searched through poetry archives online, I found myself exporting poems as PDFs and downloading audio of poems read by their authors as MP3s. I do this frequently with lots of different types of media. Even if I have no immediate need of or use for these poems or audio files, I instinctively want them. I want to have them. I know they’re freely available on the internet and even if for some reason they are removed entirely, my life won’t suffer for lack of that poem I read once while researching another author. I know this, but still, I want to save it.
I have this feeling, and I think I’m not alone, that if I don’t capture an image, or record a video, or copy that great article, or download that song I love, that I will lose those things forever. I don’t know that I’ll ever actually read that article again, but I want to get it into my digital files just in case I want to refer to it some day in the future. Sure, the record label gives that entire album of MP3’s away for free, and I can always stream it through multiple devices in my home or car, but I would like to own it anyway- just in case.
There are two major problems with this approach to life. For one, this is the exact same kind of thinking that leads kindly old widows to die trapped under mountains of newspapers they’ve been collecting and saving for decades. I don’t mean to be flippant about these genuinely sad deaths, but it is easy to see the fundamental ridiculousness of saving the daily newspaper, every single day, for years on end. Newspapers are actually the perfect example in this case, because they are specifically designed to be disposable. Newspapers are printed on thin, cheap paper with cheap ink that rubs off on your fingers, because in 24 hours a new paper will be printed, and the world will have changed and yesterday’s news will no longer be needed.
Newspapers are literally ephemera. We tend to use that word to describe anything that is impermanent, but the word itself specifically means “something lasting for only one day”. The Ancient Greeks called a particular moth ephemeros, because it hatched from an egg, found a mate, laid new eggs and died, all within a 24 hour period. Today we call that moth a Mayfly and for centuries, musicians, writers and proto-emo-sadsacks have used the Mayfly as a symbol for fleeting things we try to hold onto. A song overheard from a distance, childhood, sunbeams shining through a canopy of trees onto the forest floor, romantic relationships and rainy summer afternoons have all been referred to as Mayflies at one time or another. Despite a slightly mocking tone here, I think that these sappy poets maybe understand something that I have trouble remembering, which brings me to the second major problem with my “picture or it didn’t happen” lifestyle.
Nothing lasts forever. That phrase has been beaten up and kicked around so many times that it is practically useless, but it is still true. A photograph is an image of a second in time. I think we love taking pictures in part because it allows us to imagine we have stopped that second from passing. We have convinced ourselves, at least to some degree, that as long as that photo hangs on our wall, the moment will never actually end. This is, of course, nonsense. No matter how badly we want to stop time from conveying us through our lives and towards our deaths, we can’t stop it. There is no pause button on time. Saving documents and pictures and songs is not a bad thing in and of itself, but clinging to every passing object for fear of losing it won’t stop the seconds from ticking away.
There are more things to know, see, feel and experience in the world than any single person will find in a lifetime. Why am I so afraid of forgetting a fact I learned in college? Why am I worried that I will never hear some certain song again if I forget its name and don’t have a physical copy? In my mind, those genuinely seem like tragic losses, but would it really be so bad if I never heard that song again? Would never hearing it again diminish my enjoyment the first time I heard it? Of course it wouldn’t. What it would diminish is the pretense that I can relive that enjoyment for the rest of my life, but that moment is gone. It will always be gone. I can enjoy the song again in a new moment, and I may enjoy it just as much, or more, or less, that next time, but it will be a new moment and new experience and it will also end.
Everything ends, and that could be a depressing thought, except that it is such a fundamental truth of our existence that being sad about it makes about as much sense as being sad that I have to keep breathing in and out all the damn time. Breathing isn’t a chore or a burden- it’s just what you do if you’re alive. So I’m going to try and cling less tightly to passing moments, and download less frequently all that internet detritus. I want to remember that life is not an accumulation of things, but an unstoppable motion that is brand new every second.
(Oh bleck. You sound like the message inside a chocolate wrapper.)
I’m tired, but I have officially survived another day of this Summer of ’17, and Jonathan has arrived safely in Baghdad and everything is not ok, but I am ok right now. I’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next moment.