Like many people on the other side of a difficult and expensive divorce, the man I’m going to tell you about was struggling. About 15 years ago, in trying to right the ship of his life, he went through the couch cushions and fished out all the change that dropped out of his guests deep pockets over the years. Coupled with the savings he kept thanks to a frugal lifestyle, it was just enough money to purchase a small home in the countryside.
To the untrained eye, the dwelling may have appeared somewhat beneath him with its cracked driveway, untamed weeds and rock wall on the verge of collapse. But our man was happy to have it and knew with the slightest care, the house could become a home.
One of the things that drew him to the property the first time he drove by it was a thick pine tree with a single branch extending out at a 90-degree angle, like a one-armed scarecrow standing proud in a field. He knew that branch would be perfect to hang a small swing from. He didn’t want just any old swing, though; our friend wanted the kind of swing a child might have used 200 years ago, with brown rope and a simple wooden seat.
He checked the internet and stores but found all the swings sold today were pretty, more efficient and most often made of plastic. Exactly the kind he didn’t want. On a trip to the nearby hardware store, one of the old timers working there informed our frequent shopper that the best solution to such a dilemma was to make the swing himself. Not being that handy, he kept it simple and cut a small piece of wood, drilled holes and laced in the old rope.
For 15 years that swing hung in the yard and reminded every car that drove by that simple is often best. Finally, during the year of COVID, the ropes gave way to years of harsh weather, and the swing fell to the ground.
It was a perfect metaphor for what this last year and change have taught us about technology and progress and the reality that the old ways are often the best ways. For decades, we’ve raced to techie stores and websites to see what excitement new devices can bring to us. We’ve graduated from a clunky computer that sat motionless on a desk in a corner of the house, to smartphones and tablets and watches that interrupt us with every other beat of our heart. “Progress” is what we’ve called it—a way to be better connected to the vast world around us.
Yet, as time is often the greatest teacher, we soon learned that the very technology that boasted of bringing us closer, more often than not left us feeling isolated. Think of the family of four sitting together at your local Applebee’s, heads down, faces illuminated by their four smartphones. God forbid one of them should ask another how his or her day was—or enjoy a mozzarella stick with raspberry sauce on the table—instead of risking missing an update on Instagram or TikTok.
We have taken for granted the simple joy of being together and being able to go and do things. For a year, it has been a “Groundhog Day” ritual of masks, wipes, work, home, repeat. Who knew a trip to Walmart could be so exciting?
I’m not knocking technology. Thank God we had it these many months, so we could at least FaceTime or Zoom with the people we love and care about and see their smiling faces. But when that’s the only means of communication, suddenly you miss the good old days of crowded bars and parks and sitting at a table of 10 competing for conversation.
With the vaccines out and COVID positives steadily dropping, we, as a society, are finding our footing again after this divorce from reality. I sincerely hope we have all used this quiet time of forced isolation and reflection to remember what really matters.
I grew up hearing about the Spanish flu and the effects it had on society. I have to believe that after that monster ran its course, the hugs were a little longer and the conversations between friends who were parted, a bit more meaningful.
If, when this virus is behind us, we go back to the way we were, with so many of us lying in bed with a smartphone in our hands until the very last second of consciousness, well, I believe in my heart, we will have missed a most important lesson that came at too high a price.
The wooden swing, by the way, still sits on the lawn, the two ropes hanging from the feeble branch they were tied to so many years ago. (That’s my swing, by the way.) Will I fashion a new swing or leave it be? I haven’t decided yet. I do know that I won’t be replacing it with a shiny piece of plastic. Simple is often better. Put down the phone and hug someone you miss, and you’ll see that what I’m saying is true.