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Bear column: Living in a virtual world

Did our planet turn inside-out overnight, or does it just seem that way?

Will nothing ever feel the same again?

Our world has compacted into millions of quarantined groups, but at the same time it feels larger in the sense that people in distant places can greatly impact our lives, even as their lives are greatly impacted by ours. We are all now connected in ways we hadn’t considered even 30 years ago.

One of the great ironies of our time is that while the Internet gives us virtual access to all of Earth, it confines us to a tiny portion of it. As such, we’ve learned to substitute virtual experiences for real ones.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when if you wanted to see a waterfall, you had to go to the waterfall. Now, if you want to see a waterfall you can type “waterfall” into YouTube and get videos of waterfalls all over the world.

The problem is, the image you see is not a real waterfall. No matter the resolution of your monitor or the accuracy of your sound system, you’re still just staring at an electronic representation of a scene in nature. Your eyes and ears may fool you into thinking you’re experiencing a waterfall, but you can’t feel, smell or taste it — no rush of negative ions fill the air to benefit your mood.

Virtual has become the new buzzword for 2020. Because of COVID-19, we are now expected to live our lives virtually rather than actively. The threat of sickness for ourselves or others has stoked a fear that has driven us further inside — not only inside our homes, but inside our hearts and minds as well.

Earth doesn’t require our presence to flourish. It did so for billions of years before we arrived. But our minds require more; our hearts require more; our bodies require more.

Our hands are the most sophisticated tools on Earth. They are capable of everything from building enormous structures to creating brilliant works of art. Yet we’ve reduced them to menial tasks like typing text messages or moving a mouse.

Smart phones have become a new religion. We’ve given them enormous power, huddling around them like they’re little deities — possessing all the secrets of the universe.

This virtual world we’ve created is not sustainable, though, and it certainly isn’t living.

Three weeks ago my wife and I joined dozens of other masked cyclists and followed Mountain Fair’s Confluence Jamboree stage all over Carbondale. The experience was somewhat surreal in its symbolism of this place in time. We were chasing something we’d previously known as a common experience, something our hearts longed for — live music. Unfortunately, it was fleeting.

Frankly, I’m sick of this virtual life — virtual meetings, virtual concerts, virtual games, virtual ceremonies. I’m virtually done with it all.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the effort behind all these virtual offerings. People have gotten creative in the spirit of keeping the institutions that make up our world alive. But I get the feeling that even those who are helping create this virtual world would trade it in a heartbeat for the real one.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t compare with experience. During this age of information we’ve all tricked ourselves into thinking we are experts about a variety of subjects, but we’re lacking in the experiences that would bring nuance and color to that knowledge.

In one of my favorite scenes in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” Robin Williams’ character — the wise old professor — tells Matt Damon’s character — the brilliant but troubled young man — “If I asked you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet, but you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes. Feeling like God put an angel on Earth just for you…”

Maybe someday soon we’ll feel safe enough to resume our lives. When we do, I hope we embrace the experiences that make us whole. Maybe we can come away from this pandemic with a new appreciation for each other, for the Earth, and for finally living the lives we imagine.

Maybe we can still write a beautiful ending to the tragedy of this time.

Jeff Bear is a reporter and copy editor for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. You may reach him at jbear@postindependent.com.


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