Connect the Dots

Thursday Apr. 1st, 2010

Robert Worobec

I wonder who first created those wonderful puzzles in children’s coloring books? You know the ones.  By drawing a continuous line between numbered dots, a picture appears from the completed connection. I remember as a child the delight I felt when the image emerged.

Lately, daily life has seemed like a series of those disconnected dots before the picture is revealed. A century ago, far distant events took days, even weeks, to come to our attention. Obviously, news traveled much more slowly in those days before CNN and satellite communication. By the time you learned of some faraway catastrophe, much had already occurred to alleviate the suffering. Today, you are called upon to immediately react to the event as it happens in real time.

I believe this is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it dramatically raises the bar in self-awareness, as we witness firsthand the old Zen adage of “a butterfly fluttering its wings in China affecting the decisions of policymakers a half-world away.” Yet on the other hand, I believe this immediate participation in worldwide suffering is creating a schism, both psychologically and spiritually, in many people. Instead of increasing our levels of empathy and caring, the opposite seems to be happening with many folks. The signs are all around us. Here are some of the “dots” I’ve witnessed recently.
As a retail owner, I have somewhat of a “catbird seat” in that I see and hear a wide cross section of individuals on a daily basis. Want to know what the hot topic is lately? Road rage. Why, the argument goes, must we deal with such anger from people behind the wheel in a small town? Most folks attribute it to growth, but I think it stems from another source.  Another issue is the lack of respect or caring in young people. Doesn’t that sound like a broken record from our parents’ generation? Or every generation? Yet, this time the concern has a darker subtext to it. Why the proliferation of tattoos, body mutilations, eating disorders, and worst of all, high suicide rates?

Every previous generation thinks the music and culture of the current generation is degenerate, from swing to Elvis to the Beatles to rap. But has any other prior “youth culture” advocated rape, murder, child pornography, and incest through their music? The current one does. You’d have to look as far back as the Roman Empire to cite another example where public violence and state-approved death was viewed by the masses as sport at the Coliseum. Witness the rise in “reality” TV shows that demonstrate extreme “sports” that traffic in the basic viewer emotion of wondering if someone will be grievously injured. Thumbs up or thumbs down? How about the boundaries pushed for graphic violence and death in the movies?

As a performer, I’ve watched with interest the changes made in TV and film editing in recent years, as a result of the quick edits popularized by MTV, the original rock video cable station. Next time you watch a commercial, try to count the number of different “shots” included in a fifteen-second spot. They change so quickly, it’s like blinking your eyes. Years ago, a regular commercial was one minute long, usually comprised of three or four camera shots. Today’s commercials are standard at fifteen seconds, with hundreds of shots. Why the change? Thanks to rock videos, it seems filmmakers and TV editors discovered that they could literally re-train the viewers’ eyes and brains to absorb more information more quickly.

The new method quite literally assaults your brain and nervous system. And like eating a little bit of sugar, there’s a “repeater action” involved. Once your brain is trained to receive information this way, it wants it all the time. And now all visual media employ this technique. Everything has been reduced to the sound bite. Politics, catastrophes, world events.
What have we lost because of this change in the way we receive our media information? I believe there’s a gradual deadening of our ability to truly become involved with the story presented. In a way, maybe that’s OK, because if we were to completely involve ourselves with every worldwide event, we would have diminished capacity to cope with our daily lives and be present for our families and loved ones.

But here are the dots I’ve been connecting with this issue from the beginning. What price are we paying for this assault on our sympathies? Is the increased rage at other drivers, the self-mutilation, the fascination with destruction, symptoms of a growing inability to assimilate the demands of our common humanity? And what can we even do about it?

A respected friend suggested that you must specifically choose the issues and situations in which you invest your energy and moral outrage. Otherwise, he said, you risk deadening your response and your heart’s involvement by diluting your attention and over-extending your concern. And I think that’s what has happened. Most people want to do the right thing. And most have been taught that the right thing to do when faced with serious events is to react with concern and sympathy. Yet today the demand placed through the media on the average Joe to give of himself emotionally to the most recent horrible event has reached unmanageable levels. So what does Joe do?

Joe takes a big detour into whatever puts his mind and soul into neutral. Religion, which for many used to be the source of comfort and solace in hard times, has increasingly become one of the divisive hot-button issues adding to Joe’s fears and frustrations. An author recently wrote, “where religion is concerned, we have reached a moment of critical mass in the world, that we are entering into a kind of apocalypse unimagined in the Bible. And our punishment is not the stuff of plagues and hellfire, issued by a wrathful and dissatisfied God. Instead, it is simply the souring of our inner spirit and the crushing loss of our soul. Our undoing is our own.”

I believe the realignment of our soul journeys can come from our individual and unique abilities to regain control of our connective destinies. The actor Michael J. Fox, of Back To The Future movie fame wrote a book titled Lucky Me, in which he details his life’s evolution to grace and awareness after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Although others viewed his as a privileged life, he describes the arduous journey it took to bring his out-of-control existence back to a state of grace and form a new empathy for those challenged with his disease.

We are all inexorably moving toward grace. Each breath, each step, each decision brings us closer to completing the picture from the individual dots. Look up at the sky the next clear night. Those millions of stars are just waiting for you to draw the line between them and create that new constellation that is you, and will provide a direction Home for those who follow after.

Robert Worobec is the owner of Oak Street Natural Market & Deli in Bozeman, and FoodWorks Natural Market in Livingston.