lightbulb lying in grass

Roll Call

by Amos Smith

There is something subtle and profound that makes us uniquely human. There is something illusive, yet extraordinarily powerful, that animates human genius. In its pure form it “hovered over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). At the world’s genesis it separated the day and the night by name (Genesis 1:5). It is a power that arrives with the age of reason (about twelve or thirteen years of age). It is what some refer to as “full reflective self-consciousness”. This is a more technical phrase for the familiar term, “awareness”.

It is amazing how many times we can hear the word “awareness” without fully recognizing its penetrating primal meaning. For a long time, I thought I knew what awareness was. I thought I was aware. Yet only recently have I discovered how little I can claim hold of this illusive powerhouse of a term.

I like so many people, slip into unconsciousness on a regular basis. On some level I tune out, space out, check out. “Out” is the key word here. I am no longer present.  If there was a roll call, an astute observer would record “absent” after my name.

If I am honest, there are many intervals throughout the day when I check out. When I make my breakfast I am most often absent. I have made breakfast so many times in the same way that I now do it in my sleep. When I talk with loved ones, the people I most want to be present to and to listen to, I sometimes fade out. I stare out the window and lull my awareness to sleep. When I sit down to eat after a long day I sometimes pull my chair out without thinking—it is unconscious—I am not aware of what I am doing. Then I chew my food while thinking about something else, without really tasting it. And when I sit in front of the television, like so many Americans, I check out. I just take in the sound bites and CNN’s glossing of the news. I do not reflect and think about what is coming into my senses. I allow mental laziness to creep over me like a fog. I then just accept what is being said wholesale, even when it insults my intelligence.

It is always easier to tune out. It is always easier not to question – to just accept what we are fed through mass media. It is always easier not to look beneath the surface, not to listen when it stretches or hurts, not to be present when pulling up a chair after a long day. It is also easier not to check in on our familiar destructive habits. It is easier just to let things slide. It is effortless to pop the tranquilizer that shuts off awareness – to simply go on autopilot. It is always easier to cut class. But when we get older we can no longer obtain the permission slip to be absent. We no longer have an excuse to check out. To be an adult in the best sense is to be present. It is to be attentive to our children, to the written and spoken word, to dinner, to brushing our teeth, and to our world.

It is when people check out and appeal to instinct that our world turns to indifference, apathy, and violence. It is when people check in and appeal to reason that our world turns to compassionate understanding, beauty, and poise.

Even when we read, we are distracted and check out for a paragraph or two. This is normal. But, do we know that we have checked out and do we know which paragraphs were missed and why. Or are we so absent, we don’t even know that we are absent.  

Roll Call! Are you in or out?