Almost exactly ten years ago, in June of 2002, my wife and I were driving through Colorado, on our way from Los Angeles to New York City. In the early afternoon, while paused to tank-up our Toyota Corolla, at a massive convenience store/self-service gas island that boasted of "two-for-the-price-of-one, One and One Half Footlong Hot Dogs," we watched a family of six emerge from a late model, oversized pickup truck, proceed into the store, and return with a bounty of hot dogs and super-gulp soft drinks.
A few minutes later, we passed their vehicle on Interstate 70, and I remarked to my wife on the connection between oversized consumer goods, oversized people, and the oversized amount of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere. I queried, "Do you think they would even look up from their titanic hot dogs, if the world before them ignited into flames?"
After a few more minutes, my question was answered when a series of wildfires (very much like the ones that are scorching Colorado to ash and cinder, as I write these words) began to close in on our periphery.
Stunningly, mortifyingly, the answer to my question was, no. The occupants of the pickup proceeded straight through the screen of wafting smoke without averting their gaze from their gigantic snack food. When the world is on fire and a people refuse to take note " we're apt to find ourselves in a bit of a fix.
People, I have seen the Footlong Hot Dog of the Apocalypse. Apparently, the end of the world, as we know it, comes with your choice of condiments.
Often, when walking the streets and avenues of New York, one is forced to dodge a fellow pedestrian who walks directly into one's path as he/she stares distracted into the screen of some electronic appliance. There have been times when I have stopped in my tracks at the approach of one of these mindless denizens of the Cult of Endless Distraction as he/she has walked head-on into me.
At times, they evince an aura of victimhood " feeling an injustice has transpired, because I fail to clear a path for them. Their trope of entitlement is delivered thus, "Why didn't you get out of my way. " You saw me coming."
"Yes, but didn't you notice yourself proceeding," I reply. At this " a blank stare " as if I had just posited some fragment of arcane law, adhered to by some alien race lost to time.
Indulge me in the following digression: In the (failed) attempt to create a republic, the early U.S. aristocracy deemed and codified into law that property rights were paramount to human rights " that self-interest would, as a rule, proceed before public good. Later, the age of advertising introduced the notion that instant gratification trumps self-awareness.
The combination of these two principles have engendered a series of generations of consumers (the practice of citizenship barely exists, at present) for whom the concept of civil engagement is so obscure that, for these sorts, sharing a city sidewalk seems a task too complicated to envisage.
"I was born here and I'll die here against my will/ I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still/ Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb/ I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from/ Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer/ It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."
--Not Dark Yet | Bob Dylan
Individually and en masse, U.S. citizens are checked-out, lost, possessed by inertia or manic jags of distraction, feelings of hopelessness and powerless rage, and are desperate for some kind of quick fix " as if that were even possible. For example, why else would so many be addicted to unhealthy corporate food, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications? Why are so many so desperate for relief from reality itself?
One reason: There exists a void of purpose, both communal and personal; a keening hollowness that becomes present when a person has been rendered by circumstance bereft of the belief that life can be resonant with meaning " that he is in possession of a unique destiny. The concept has been lost that one's life is a fascinating question that is addressed to the world -- and it is imperative that one quests for answers.