Soon after we were married, Natasha and I took a road trip out west. We had no particular plan besides, “Head west, young man!” and stopping at as many cool places as we could find before we hitting the Pacific.
Eventually, we were driving into Wyoming, toward Devil’s Tower. The land was a bit hilly, if I remember correctly, green and lazy. Then, suddenly, there’s Devil’s Tower in the distant, a column of rock standing proud and lonely among the low hills. It was a striking sight. The national monument is no less impressive up close. It draws your eyes and makes you wonder, “How in the world did this get here?”
I was reminded of this because occasionally some place will come up in conversation with my kids and I’ll pull up YouTube and show them what I’m talking about. You know, things like the Great Wall of China and Ayers Rock and Stonehenge and how water works in space.
I’ve never been to any of these places (or played with water in space). But I have been to Devil’s Tower. The videos I show my kids are usually cool. The Devil’s Tower one was underwhelming. Why?
Obviously, you had to be there.
Despite all our various and ever-increasing methods of recording the world, nothing is the same as being there. Sure, an iMax video of the Grand Canyon is gorgeous and awe-inspiring, it’ll show you parts you may never see, but it’s just not quite the same as being there. Pixelated reality, no matter how crystal clear, is not true reality.
I suppose, someday, we’ll claim that VR is just like being there, but my guess is that it’ll actually be the next best thing to being there.
A letter is not a visit. A Skype chat is not a chat over coffee. A home video is not your child’s fifth birthday. There is a real difference between being present and being presented.
This seems simple, except we need to relearn simple things all the time. Life is found in the living, in the here and now. It’s not found, first or foremost, in the screen or scrapbook. It’s not as well-framed or as well-paced. It’s a little repetitive and rather hard and not always pleasant. But we were made for it.
What the video of Devil’s Tower gave me was the desire to return to the real Devil’s Tower. A love letter causes the longing to increase. A good book says, “What you see here is only a shadow.”
We need these secondhand experiences. We need them desperately, to expand our horizons, to color our faded vision, and to draw us into the true and deep things of the world. But we should not stay there.
That’s no way to live.