by Dante Zappala
I am running through Zion National Park, quickly approaching Emerald Pools. I’m locked in on the rocky terrain in front of me even as I am glancing up at the TV screens to catch coverage of the Pope. I’m fully immersed in a fake world, trying to ignore the only real thing that is keeping me here – time.
I threw my back out. It can’t take the pounding of running. But it will, however, tolerate the elliptical. I’m sentenced to an hour of fake running on a fake journey through the National Parks. I don’t want to know how much longer I have. I’d rather push through and tour Grand Staircase.
On the television screens at the gym, there is nothing but wall-to-wall coverage of the Pope. I glanced up to watch him emerge from his Fiat and greet people. I imagined meeting Francis. The clamoring for that opportunity surrounding his trip makes it obvious how monumental and inspiring it must be to touch the man and receive his gaze and blessing.
So I paid particular attention to the people who did have the encounter. Mostly, and not surprisingly, they were on their phones. In this coveted moment, a once in a lifetime occurrence, they were experiencing it not in person, but as I was in my fake world in the gym: through a screen.
The Twitter and Facebook feeds of these people would be abuzz. I’m sure their picture of Francis garnered a lot of likes and shares. They had been there. They experienced this. And everyone they know now knows.
What an utter tragedy, I thought. If ever a moment in a person’s life called for them to be present, if ever one had cause to put down their device to witness, experience and absorb and event, surely it is meeting the Pope.
I’m certainly not surprised. We are pathological in our attempt to capture moments digitally. At rock concerts and our kids’ recitals, at the school play and in our living room, the urge to pull out the phone and record is unmistakable. Our kids gaze out to see our loving eyes of approval and instead they see the back of an iPad.
That filter is a sieve. It strains out the substances that make us human. Gone is the meaning found in the glint of an eye, the crack of a smile and the depth of a stare.
What we get in return for this sacrifice is pure digital junk. It might make it to the cloud or the hard drive. A video might be shared with friends or family. But it doesn’t cover the cost of not being present.
The irony is that the effort to preserve and share a moment is precisely what inhibits its power to make a lasting impression. Moments have become opportunities for consumption. We latch on like parasites to a viral image or story. Soon enough, we’ve devoured it, its lifeblood has vanished and we need something new to feed us.
My wife has been enthralled by the Pope and his message. His choice to serve lunch to homeless people rather than dine with power brokers sums up a revolutionary reproach of the status quo. But my wife is wise enough to recognize that when he leaves, that luster will fade, and it will be business as usual in the United States. There will be no impactful change to come from this tour. We will still have poverty. We will still have injustice. And we will not make any fundamental change to rectify these ills.
I trudged along into Arizona and glanced at the clock. I still had 15 minutes left. A man positioned himself for a selfie as the Pope passed him by. A few present minded people held his hand. Someone kissed his cheek. But the guy with his camera was adamant about getting this picture of him and the Pope right. It was not only a loss for him, but it was a loss for anyone who was there or anyone watching on television.
For the Pope’s message is to forget about our self-help obsession. Rather, we simply need a help obsession. We need to see the people who aren’t in our mirrors. The walls of our institutions shield our gaze from the less fortunate who reside outside of our structures. Taking a selfie with the Pope is the perfect metaphor for our inability to see beyond ourselves and what is required of us.
In the week since I’ve been off from running, I haven’t made a single entry into my online training log. There are months of workouts and statistics, miles and hours of effort I can look at. They are stacked up behind this blank space on my calendar like a major accident on the expressway.
Yet a lot happened in that week. I turned 40. We had a party. I saw people from my past and present, together, enjoying laughter and beer. Kids ran in every direction—front, back, up and down.
Not much exists in the digital record. What specific memories I have of that night will also fade. And I’m okay with it. Because what we affirmed and what we created that night was a painting, not a picture. It was, in its very essence, real.