Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Missed Opportunities

We are living in a world of missed opportunities.

Missed opportunities occur all of the time - almost daily, in fact. Most of them pass unnoticed because they are such small, seemingly insignificant acts. For example, when you are walking down the street by yourself and you pass someone heading the other way; you both avert your eyes, as if making eye contact or (gasp) smiling at each other would be too uncomfortable to bear. Or when you’re driving to work and you pass someone whose car has broken down, but you don’t take the time to stop and help them. It was after an incident similar to these that I first began to notice these lost opportunities, and since then there have been many more that have passed me by. I was standing in line at the grocery store, and the harassed-looking mother ahead of me had to put a toy for her little girl back on the shelf because she didn't have the money to pay for it. I wanted to offer her the money to cover the rest of it, but I hesitated (I thought “what if she becomes offended?”), and the opportunity was gone. She left the store toting a bawling, disappointed toddler, never even realizing that I had wanted to help. Not as an act of condescension or charity (as it might have been perceived), but just out of kindness. I started to think about how these missed events must happen to everyone, and how it might affect our society on a global level.

It’s almost as if our first instinct is to help other people, but we learn to suppress this instinct as we become older. Children, for example, rarely hesitate before going with their first impulse and reaching out to anyone, indiscriminate of race, religion, beauty or social standing. For some reason, as children grow older they lose that “innocent” or “naive” trait and become more guarded and suspicious. It could be the fact that we are bombarded with news of violence and hate crimes in the news every day. Or it could be a larger social phenomenon that has taken root. We tell ourselves that it is safer to be on guard with the people outside our immediate social circle (which is likely to be true to an extent), but this safety comes at a high price: the sacrifice of a society where people can freely interact without fear or hesitation.

Occasionally you will meet that extraordinary person who is able to act on impulse and grab those opportunities as they come. They act with a complete disregard for the many doubts and insecurities that plague the rest of us mere mortals. Naturally, these people lie at each end of the moral spectrum. At the lower end, there are the cutthroats, who don't hesitate to take an opportunity to act in their own self-interest at the expense of others. Then there are the high-end opportunists, who constantly go out of their way to help others and better the world. Then there are the majority of us, lying somewhere along the middle of the line. We feel the temptations of each extreme, but for one reason or another we remain within our own sphere of influence. This has created an increasingly restricted social situation, where people tend to withdraw into their limited social group.

The biggest consequence of this type of humanity is that people are generally less trusting and open with other people. As the number of random acts of kindness dwindles, so does the amount of goodwill that people hold for each other. This leads to a more individualized society, where most citizens choose to cut themselves off through various mediums in order to avoid contact with others. The latest means of accomplishing this is the iPod.

There is no denying the strong cultural impact that the iPod and similar devices have had on our society in the last few decades. These days you can’t go anywhere without seeing someone rocking out in their own, private reality. Public buses, which used to be an environment of interaction and debate, now stay silent. The obvious exception to that would be the occasional person loudly chatting on a cell phone (the only one oblivious to the unspoken rule of silence). However, the iPod sensation is not only contained to transportation: some people have insisted on staying plugged in to their music throughout all of their daily activities, including work, grocery shopping, eating at restaurants, and even during concerts! Soon we will start seeing signs asking to “please turn off all musical devices” instead of just the “no cell phones, please” signs currently posted in restaurants and other public places.

This is not to be interpreted as a personal attack against the iPod. I am guilty of owning one myself, and I use it in some of the previously described situations. This is partially what caused me to notice the overwhelming percentage of people who don their headphones whenever they are out in public. While I agree that it is handy to have every kind of music available to you whenever you desire, I would also argue that the incessant use of iPods (and other electronics with headphones) essentially cuts people off from each other and prevents the social interactions that enrich our culture. This phenomenon has undoubtedly increased the number of missed opportunities exponentially, further exacerbating the problem. People are now simply walking down the street with their heads down and headphones blasting, not even aware of the possibilities that they are passing by.

However, the iPod is not a cause of the shrinking of our social sphere, but was developed as a result of it. This movement has been slowly building momentum for many years. Prior to the invention of headphones, listening to music was more of a collective experience. Even in the boom box phase of the ‘70s and ‘80s, experiencing music was a shared event (either by choice or by force). Whether it was Led Zeppelin or Michael Jackson, it was blasted as loud as the speakers would allow. Strangers could join in on the fun with little effort. It is true that this still happens today during concerts and live shows, but it is much more limited now that people primarily listen to their private playlists. Despite the Apple advertisements depicting people dancing together on the street to their respective music, I can’t imagine this happening very often in the real world. The fact that only one person can hear the music intrinsically limits the experience to just themselves. The iPod sensation is a very telling illustration for the overall individualistic trend that our culture has been taking for a long time.

So what can be done to combat this world of increasingly limited interactions? Are we doomed to live in a culture where people are incapable of kindness towards anyone outside of their social bubble? Luckily, the truly amazing aspect of this predicament is that in a world full of insurmountable problems, here is one with a very simple solution. If everyone were able to listen to their instincts and follow their impulses, we really could make our culture a better one to live in. I am not suggesting that everyone should devote their lives to volunteer work and prayer, but if everyone were to indulge in an unsolicited act of generosity (no matter how small) it would make a huge difference in our quality of life. I know that the next time I see someone short of change at the store, I won’t hesitate to offer them a hand.