Our Natural Disaster: A Beautiful Side Effect

Just as the community was coming back from the havoc wreaked by the largest fire in California history, just as we thought the worst had come and gone...rain. The rain, which was nowhere to be found while the flames ripped through our hills, made a short but devastating appearance this week. I have no words for the horror and the loss that our community and its members are mourning, so I won’t make an attempt. However, what I can speak to is a beautiful side effect of our nearly citywide service outage.

When mudslides took out the power lines, Carpinteria lost access to everything. Cable, internet, and cellphone services were down for up to about 5 days in some areas. No watching the news on TV, no receiving updates online, no calling or texting…nothing. Some of us were trapped in our homes for days due to road damages and closures, and some of us could even get into town, where almost every local business was without these privileges as well.

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Two days after the disaster, I went on a walk along the street at the top of the hill I live on. The one-way road makes a loop about a mile long and I’ve walked and run this loop for many years passing the same houses, the same flower gardens, avoiding the same potholes, cursing the same upwards slope. In all the years I’ve spent essentially running in circles, I’ve never seen so. many. people. Couples and kids and grandparents peppered the street. They were holding hands, walking their dogs, and talking to each other. It was so surprising that my first thought was that an event was happening somewhere on the hill that they were all going to. They all had to know each other or have planned this. There’s no way all of these people, neighbors I’ve never even seen before, just happen to be outside at the same time.

And then it hit me- they don’t have access to anything. They can’t watch their shows. They can’t work from home. Technology had been taken away all at once, and suddenly talking to each other and going for a walk outside was the only thing to do. It was beautiful to see, and troubling to realize.

The next day I sat and talked with a family member for three hours while the sun went down. What began as a quick hello unfolded into one of the most rewarding conversations we’ve ever had together. Without the ability to watch, send, text, post, scroll, click, etc. we were simply…there. We had time and space to ask each other questions and listen deeply. There was nothing to get back to. There wasn’t anything we could have been doing that we weren’t. All we could do, was be. The absence of technology removed the clutter and noise that surrounds us constantly and what we had left was each other's company. 

Our relationships with people are arguably the most important parts of our lives and greatest sources of happiness. While technology allows more and more efficient communication, how is it affecting the quality? How many moments and conversations and opportunities to connect to the people in our lives have we missed because some sort of screen was nearby? What is this constant distraction from life, the thing happening right now, stealing from us really? After 5 days without it, I had not the one but three amazingly unpredictable moments in conversation with three people I love. I saw the instant shift in quality of communication as a result of no ‘access’. This isn’t just an assumption or a “try this three times a week” idea anymore. It’s fact. Our modern lives of social media and emails and computers and Netflix are taking away from what makes life worth writing about, dreaming about, playing the piano for, laughing until you cry for. We are losing something irreplaceable and precious- our time together. Time we will never get back, moments we can never re-live. So how are we spending our time? Who is sitting near you? How are they? What’s happening in their lives right now? Ask them.