Most days when the weather is cooperative, I like to take a midday break by bringing my young German Shepherd to nearby Vassar College. The world-famous liberal arts school is just a short drive away, and Sophie loves roaming the expansive lawns and greeting students as they make their way from one stately building to the next. It’s good exercise for the two of us — both physically and mentally — and something we very much look forward to as part of our daily routine.
The 150-year-old campus is exceptionally beautiful. Dotted with soft alcoves under shady trees, and stone benches inscribed with inspirational poetry, it was clearly designed to promote scholarly thought. One can well imagine a young Edna St. Vincent Millay or Meryl Streep reveling in the peaceful surroundings as they lay on the grass or sat on one of those benches, studying their textbooks or perhaps just dreaming of the life that lay before them.
Today? Not so much. In fact, it’s rare to see even a single student not staring at their phones zombie-like as they walk along Vassar’s winding pathways or sit on one of those benches or stretch out on one of the verdant lawns. Now, I understand the importance of being connected 24/7 to many people these days — especially millennials, for whom it seems to be almost an obsession — but where does it leave the space for the quiet contemplation necessary for a mind (especially a young mind!) to blossom?
It’s not just Vassar, of course, and it’s not just college campuses. Walk the sands of any beach as waves lap gently upon the shore; hike through dense forests or to the top of distant hilltops for a glimpse of vistas rarely seen; enter the hallow halls of a museum to gaze upon a painting or photograph or sculpture by a master artist; attend any concert, any performance, any undertaking intended to uplift the spirit. Doesn’t matter where or when or how life-changing the event could be: I guarantee there will be somebody gaping at their phone, taking pictures, shooting videos, sending texts, posting to social media, or, worst of all, talking loudly. It is as if documenting the experience has become more important than having the experience. What a pity.
Smart as she is, there’s no question that Sophie does not possess a fraction of the intellect of any of the students at Vassar. But I would argue that in those moments when she is playfully tossing a pine cone in the air or sniffing the breeze to try and catch the scent of another dog, or chasing in vain after a bird flitting from bush to bush, she is infinitely more connected than those students who, though surrounded by a paradise of sorts, choose to instead immerse themselves in a virtual reality of meaningless texts and social media updates.
I know there are some who will view this as a rant by some aging, out-of-touch guy. But I see it more as a lament — a longing for something that seems to be lost more and more with each passing day, something that used to be such a vital part of who we are as human beings.
“Take the time to smell the roses” is amongst the hoariest of hoary old clichés, but I would submit that it, and all of its corollaries (i.e., “take the time to enjoy the view,” “take the time to listen to the music”) is perhaps the most important of all of life’s lessons, for we all eventually reach the point where memories are pretty much all we have. Why limit those memories to a view of the world through a 2 ½ inch glass screen?