My wife and I attended one such vigil hosted by Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley on Thursday last. It was a somber and small event. A few publicly shared their connection to that tragedy and what caused them to show up that day. And that was followed by a poster signing to be sent to the members of the Tree of Life synagogue.
But there were two standout observations I had at that event that really got me thinking.
As the US (and other parts of the world as well) recovers from the momentous tragedy that unfolded in Pittsburgh over a week ago, there have been vigils that allow grieving folks to come together in a show of support and solidarity.
The first was the conversations we had with absolute strangers. The fact we had all opted-in to be there that Thursday evening naturally bonded us. That common bond of humanity that we all shared allowed for a bottom of the heart dialog – the kind of which I had not experienced in a long time. Truth be told, I was a little hesitant to engage in conversation but my wife had no such qualms and I am so glad she did. As our eyes made contact, we all commiserated and questioned the inability for our rational minds to make sense of this mindless tragedy.
And then there was the second observation. Being in Silicon Valley, I had never seen anything like this before. Hold your breath – no one, not one single soul had their smartphone screen lit up there the entire hour we were present. They were either face down or switched off and remained that way through the entire evening. Appropriately so. Regardless – #WOW. When was the last time you were at a public function (or in your own living room for that matter) where texts, calls, photos, selfies dominated everything? My mind was thinking of joyous occasions – vacations, childbirth, weddings, graduation where our digital companion is our constant multi-tasking instigator. Even in the very classroom where we were all seated, I could conjure up students in class engaging with their Android apps surreptitiously or otherwise. But not today.
A full 24 hours later, the implications of that distraction-free hour started nagging me and I started questioning the society that we have transformed into. Where true engagement with another human being happens without distraction mandates a calamitic event of this sort. Maybe I am over-dramatizing. There are detox retreats and soulful restaurants where smartphones are disallowed. But the underlying enduring theme remains the same. A conscious, difficult and purposeful meeting or location where this unfolds. Dramatic disengagement with our digital companions, albeit hard, is the only way to engage with each other.
While we went there with the intent of connecting with like-minded folks and pay our respects to the departed souls, which we did, I also had the unexpected side benefit of connecting with myself and a reminder about how to approach this distracted, digital ether that envelops us from the outside and within.