By Tim Hayes
In the late ‘90s, December posed a special challenge. Three kids under the age of 10 and Christmas on everyone’s radar. My wife and I would make at least one, usually two, trips to the only store that to this day can wrench me from a dream state into wide-eyed alertness at 3 a.m.
Toys R Us. I shudder even as I type the name.
Frantic, frazzled parents and grandparents clogging every aisle. Unwieldy plastic shopping carts slamming against display racks. That stupid giraffe smiling at you from every direction. Waiting for bicycles to be assembled and hoping they’d been done properly for the extra charge. That freakishly pink Barbie section. And the checkout lines! Dear God, the place was a circus, a zoo, a test of character. But we went. Over and over again. Every year, every Christmas, every birthday.
And now, Toys R Us teeters on the razor’s edge of bankruptcy, along with that other uniquely American retail legend, the Sears, Roebuck Company. The Amazon effect rolls on unabated.
When you can make a few taps on a cell phone and have just about anything you want brought to your door, what could be easier? Faster? Better? But, wait a minute. Let’s think about this a little more. Hmmm, I wonder.
Back when I first moved to college, I can remember walking down to the large communal bathroom in my robe and slippers, along with the other freshmen on our dorm floor. There’d be a line of four or five of us, each standing at his own sink, looking into the giant mirror that ran the length of the wall, shaving before getting a shower.
The water rarely remained hot. The windows leaked cold air into the space in winter. It was a pretty tough way to start a day. But guess what? Because we had no other choice, it actually worked to our advantage in the long run. By sharing that experience with a bunch of guys who, on Labor Day, were complete strangers, by Thanksgiving we had made some good friendships.
The secret came in being in the same place at the same time. Going through something together. Getting to know other people, learning how to hold a conversation, appreciating new perspectives and new points of view. Building a society, one dormitory floor, one morning shave at a time.
I fear the value of that sort of shared experience gets more lost with each passing year. Why go to the movies, when you can see the same picture on your pay-per-view TV at home? Why go shopping at the mall, when you can have your heart’s desire brought to your house? Why send your kid to school, when he or she can have a personal tutor via Skype? Why go through the hassle and humiliation of seeking a mortgage at a bank, when you can apply on your phone and get an answer in less than a minute? And speaking of phones, why use yours to actually call and converse live with another human being, when you can text or e-mail or tweet or post?
Why? Because our society is forgetting how to live as human beings. Because a generation has come of age without fully appreciating the charm and functionality and necessity of human, in-person, face-to-face interaction.
When decisions about people’s jobs or finances or education or anything else depend only on data, we’re in trouble. Banks used to make “character” loans, based on a personal knowledge and familiarity between banker and customer. Merchants would extend credit on nothing more than a person’s word, because people knew each other. Do those things still happen? Maybe, but they’re the exception now.
That impersonal veneer that seems to hang over and cling to our lives today, while convenient and easy and seemingly an advancement? We may have to pay for it down the road in ways we can’t imagine right now.
I’m glad we fought our way through Toys R Us all those years ago. I’m glad I shared an ice-cold shave with my dorm mates as a college freshman. I’m glad of the hundreds and hundreds of shared experiences that have helped me and others like me learn how to survive and thrive alongside other people.
The enclosed, impersonal, online electronic life can be amazing, no doubt. But it’s not really living.
Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes