This column originally ran on March 19, 2012.
I have several memories as a young child of sitting in the back seat of our family car. I cannot recall where we were going or what we did when we got there, but I can remember clearly recall riding in the car. The only thing I can remember about the car is that it was gray and seemed really big to me. In those days there were no car seats for young children or even mandatory seat belts for that matter so the view outside the window of any vehicle was pretty much restricted to telephone poles and the tops of trees. Climbing up onto our knees to see better was not an option since our mother's instructions clearly involved actually sitting and not kneeling. Consequently, most car rides were pretty boring and with minimal input. I can recall trying to count the telephone poles as they flashed by and that it didn't take long for me to reach the limits of either my number knowledge or attention span. I remember stopping for gas and having a bird's eye view of the gas pump. I liked to watch the numbers change on the counter and listen to the mechanical clicks and pings as the gas was pumped. In my memory the price of gas was 29 cents a gallon, which ought to tell you how long ago it was. As boring as this traveler's tale may sound, in retrospect, I realize that it gave me a certain amount of time for two things people just don't seem to do a lot of anymore...think and reflect.
Over the years I have come to believe that taking the time for thought and reflection is a vitally important part of the human condition and essential to the establishment of a culture and the formation of progressive ideas. Think of all the things that still exist in our culture today that are products of individuals spending time in quiet thought and reflection. One of the best examples of this is the wonderful canopy of constellations formed by the minds of the Greeks, Persians, Mayans and a host of other ancient people. Anyone who has seen a night sky unhindered by the reflection of modern lighting knows that there are a whole lot of stars in the sky and someone spent an enormous amount of time using mental lines to connect them to create the idea of the zodiac and all the constellations. That translates as a boat load of hours lying on one's back in a field or mountain or roof top staring at the sky, seeking out shapes like a cosmic game of connect the numbers, and yes, thinking, pondering, and reflecting. This may seem like a monumental waste of time to some people, but the result was a masterpiece of imagination, creativity, and ideas that is still with us today.
In the modern world it seems to be all about easily accessible and massive input, the tools of which has far surpassed our needs. Our children start from birth with recordings and television and quickly move on to video games and computers. They have there are things that are called 'learning tools' and things that are called 'entertainment' and both require that we be plugged in to something with a power source that can do more and more hat tricks and keep us occupied and amused. When I speak with my son's contemporaries they seem to devote their pondering and reflection time to wondering if they are attractive enough, cool enough, fit enough, or have the best electronic toys. They appear to spend a good chunk of their down time dwelling on their dissatisfaction, disappointment, and distrust. Sometimes it seems as if their primary quest for ideas are new and totally cool ways to fend off boredom.
It seems doubtful to me that all those many hours of sky watching on the part of the Greeks was done by one or two dedicated guys lying on a hill. It seems more likely that it was a communal effort on the part of many people. Maybe there was a club of sky watchers made up of shepherds, philosophers, sailors and science geeks who met once a month to compare notes. One guy found the lion, another guy saw the crab, yet another the ram, and they shared their visions until they had created an entire sky for every season made up of a marvelous collection of imaginative creatures and figures.
There are still people gazing at the sky and pondering the fabric of the universe and they have some incredibly impressive tools with which to do it. There are other people looking through powerful microscopes at the tiniest particles of this world and thinking about the fundamental aspects of life and matter. But how sad is it that this kind of reflection seems to have narrowed to being the purview of only the big-brain guys with the fabulous tools? In our noisy, colorful, fast paced world there seems to be little free time for just quiet thought and reflection on the big or small questions. In a world moving near to the speed of light opinions must be formed quickly and decisions made fast. There is no time to reflect – only react. Sometimes it seems to me that we are not moving forward but rather, like a pinball, slamming around frantically, bouncing off of things, and never stopping to reflect on what it was we hit or why we even did.