Virtual Voices

Which way we look

Culture

I'm not far from Santa Monica, Calif., this week. Yesterday I stole away from meetings and the people in those meetings to drive down to the beach for a run. That in itself was a spectacle---driving, adding the exhaust from start-and-stop Santa Monica traffic to the atmosphere, all so I could do something that helps me breathe easier. It made me wonder how often my breath comes at the expense of someone else's.

I ran on the asphalt walk that stretches along the Santa Monica coast into Venice Beach. Along the walk in Venice Beach there are people hawking incense and T-shirts, cheap jewelry and rosaries, scenic paintings and hookahs. Apparently some stores have tried to intrude on this turf, because there were signs calling for people to organize against commercial enterprises. I suspect we all need to feel righteously indignant about something, even if it is only the indignation of others.

I was absorbed in people-watching as I ran---the dreadlocks, the torn garments, the ubiquitous piercings and tattoos. There were grown men behaving like boys and old men stumbling along in alcoholic or psychotic stupors, and permeating all of it the air of untrammeled freedom. We are so free that we have not just the liberty to read Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov but the liberty to live ignorant of their work. We are free to become whatever we have a passion and a competence for. And so we are necessarily free to do nothing at all.

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What struck me most was how everyone---me included---was taken in by the humanity around us. We were all of us people-watching. That probably explains most of the silly hairstyles and attention-grabbing clothing---the reality that everyone is watching everyone. Meanwhile, behind us was the ocean we take for granted. The glorious Pacific under a burning sky threw wave after wave on the sandy shore, but here we all were, jogging and walking and selling trinkets. Perhaps that's most of mankind, and not just me and the other people on Venice Beach. Perhaps we are drawn to our strutting selves rather than the portions of the world that cry out the name of God. It made me wonder how often I have my back turned to incomprehensible glory, that I might take in the petty thrills of man. Having eyes to see---this is no small thing. And perhaps we all have them---only we are looking in the wrong direction.

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