The Importance of Being Present

I have been a devoted Nerdfighter for some years now.

Wait, hold up. Let me explain that.

A Nerdfighter, as defined by the men known as the Vlogbrothers, is “someone who, instead of being made of bones and skin and stuff, is made up of awesome.” These two brothers, acclaimed novelist John Green and his brother, the founder of Ecogeek, Hank, started the YouTube sensation known as the Vlogbrothers in an effort to keep in touch without cell phones. Since then the videos have inspired a huge following of fellow Nerdfighters in the ongoing battle to “decrease world suck” and spread knowledge and thoughtful contemplation about the world in which we live.

There, now that that’s out of the way, onto the main reason for this post.

Today John uploaded a new video entitled “Headless Statues and Elton John’s Piano” (you can see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KboR0Iw96Hk). In this video based in London, John poses the question of whether or not actually “seeing things” is necessary anymore now that virtual seeing has become so lifelike. He asks this once after observing a photograph of a piece at the museum, a picture so much like the actual tablet that it takes him some time to reconcile this optical illusion with what he is seeing, and again at the end of the video where he stares out at the London bridge under the night sky.

I would like to answer John’s question here and leave further discussion up to my readers. There is something vital to really appreciating a sight in actually being there to see it. The physical act of standing or sitting there and being in the presence of whatever has captured your attention is incomparable to anything else. There are certain things you can only begin to appreciate about a sight when you are actively there, in the moment and mindful of that moment. Without the privilege of studying a masterpiece in person or climbing the steps of the Arc de Triomphe (and it is a privilege only some have, I don’t deny it.) a great portion of the experience is passed over.

For example, when I went to the United Kingdom with my father to visit some of our family, I brought away a certain calmness of spirit such as I had never really known before. The physical act of walking among the hills and slopes of England and Scotland, the feel of rain-slick cobblestones under my feet (and the subsequent feeling of my forehead smacking into said cobblestones), and the weight of the chilly air on my neck and shoulders all filled and buoyed me throughout the trip. Those sensations leant a certain realness and layer to the sights I saw such as the castles and historical paths. Without having walked those hills and felt my feet sink into the dew-bedecked grass I would have missed a big part of the experience of seeing the landscape.

Unfortunately, I was not yet thirteen and painfully detached from the whole thing, not as mature as I am now at eighteen, and still missed out on much of the philosophical nature of the English countryside. Were I to return now, being firmly present in each moment would be foremost in my mind.

It is that presence, both physically and mentally, that ensures the greatest understanding of what you are seeing, what gives you the ability to not only see this thing but to absorb and embody it, to become this painting, this building, this landscape, and bring it back home with you.

Snowmen and Corsages

Last night, on a whim, I took a walk around campus after dinner. My roommate had gone back to the room, and I wandered the quad with music filling my head. The paths were empty, most students having gone home for the long weekend, and I sometimes sang to the setting sun. A light chill slipped down the neck of my jacket, and I took a deep breath.

Twice I stumbled upon something that made me stop. The first time was when I came upon a dirt-caked, broken snowman. It was simply a cracked ball of snow with a pair of branches sticking out of it sadly. The outside sported a coat of dirt and grass, but the inside gleamed clean and white, carefully preserved like wine in an ancient cask.

I thought about approaching it, about plunging my fingers into the cold just to know what it felt like. But I stayed on the sidewalk and only looked. It felt like it would be offensive and disrespectful to go rifling through the snowman’s insides for my own desire. Had it not suffered enough with its mud-stained outside.

It strikes me now that this situation is much like how people, specifically white people, treat other cultures and histories. How we as a group have rummaged in devastated civilizations so we can expand our knowledge. The Native Americans, Africans, and countless others cracked open like dirty snowmen for our own desires, our own whims. Despicable at best.

I continued on my walk from there and paused when I spotted a white flower on the ground. Picking it up, I noticed a pair of straight pins bound to the stem and realized I was holding a corsage. I pried at the petals, wanting to ensure no insects had made their homes in the flower. As I walked and examined I wondered about this adornment’s origins.

Who had worn it? Who gave it to them? What was the occasion? Had they known each other long before it? Did they like each other? Did they have fun? What happened to dislodge the corsage? Why did no one notice its disappearance?

How many questions lie in something so simple and innocent. A million stories bound up with the straight pins.

In the end, I left the corsage in the grass. I passed the broken snowman without another glance. I nodded along to my music, and I went back to my room.