August 1, 2009
The moment the wheels separate from the runway and the passenger begins to feel himself pull up away from the earth, he is given a rare opportunity to look with his own eyes at things from a new perspective: he is able to look down upon the world—like a bird, or perhaps like God. He is able to see the cars moving—impossibly slow—down the highway as they head off to work; to him, the giant factories and skyscrapers, once impressive, are now nothing more than tiny clusters of human development, no more impressive to his elevated eyes than the eyes of a child are impressed by an ant-hill; the once chaotic suburban jungles are mowed-down into the most simplistic, yet intricately planned organisms where each doll-house’s driveway feeds the neighborhood, each neighborhood feeds the side-street, and each side-street feeds the main-street. When I was a kid, as I rode my bike through my neighborhood, it seemed immense and chaotic. If I had been on a plane before I was sixteen I would have known that, in actuality, it was planned and ordered to the last detail. Whatever I thought about the road-trips to Florida as I sat crammed in the back seat of our minivan, that fact alone is enough to make me feel grateful that my family always drove everywhere while I was growing up.
Although on my first flights it was a melancholy feeling to watch the world shrink underneath me, I found it fascinating to watch the transformation. I considered myself in a privileged position—I could finally see the smallness and the absurdity of it all. It was no wonder, I reflected, that birds have no qualms about crapping on us—just look at how silly, how insignificant we are!
I was on a flight heading back home from New Orleans. For some reason, perhaps because I was still recovering from an illness and was anxious to get home, this time my thoughts during the take off were very different. As the wheels of the plane pulled away from the earth, a different thought came to mind: why did I always assume before that the further away I was from something, the better I could see it? What was it about human beings and our bias towards distance and impartiality in determining the truth of things? Can’t some things be better seen up close than far away? Aren’t some things better understood when one is somehow invested in them? Certainly distance puts a great many things in perspective: the best way to look at a mural is not with your nose two inches away from the wall; and I can’t imagine how a businessman could ever look down from a skyscraper on the ant-people below and ever again put his job before his family.
Yet in a great many other situations distance can have the opposite effect, hiding and obscuring the truth of the thing. Perhaps the car creeping down the highway only contains another human specimen absent-mindedly driving towards his place of work in order to punch his time card—but perhaps he’s driving back home to surprise his wife, or to take his kids to the zoo…maybe he’s rushing to the hospital in order to say goodbye to his Dad and hold his hand firmly with tears in his eyes as he slips away. You cannot tell where that car is going from an airplane in the sky. The meaning of the action is lost in the distance. And then I realized that the view from the airplane is most certainly not God’s view of the world at all. Of course, he can see the mural in full—but he’s also in the hospital room with the son and his father, he’s at the table with the couple on their twenty-year anniversary, and he’s eating an ice-cream cone at the zoo while two six-year-olds make faces at baboons.
It seems that the whole crisis of modernity is that man feels himself insignificant next to the great machinery of the world and the sheer number of his fellow creatures. If he could only descend and see the individual once more, he could see that his feeling of insignificance is only a mistake of perspective. His life and his soul are no less inherently valuable than at any other time in human history—the shine of his worth is only more obscured by all of the nonsense of the world, and more hidden-away as only a tiny part of the immensity of humanity.
The social science view of man is helpful in certain respects: it provides general trends, statistics, averages, and tidy explanations for complex phenomena. There is no doubt, however, that theman who looks upon everything from this perspective alone is tragically far-sighted—he is desperately in need of the corrective lenses the humanities and a serious reflection on his own life can provide.
Imagine if you could have seen a World War I battle fromthe safety and comfort of an airplane cabin. As the men below were literally ripped apart by machines, it would have certainly appeared that the sight below was the very epitome of a cruel, bitter, meaninglessness—the epitome of ant-hill man, swarming and dying over breadcrumbs. But with this view of the world, looking down from the cabin, you would have missed the soldier risking his own life in order to save that of his wounded friend, carrying him over his shoulder away from the massacre as machine-gun fire and explosions cracked and popped all around them. I’ve never been near a war, so I can’t say anything to anyone about it; for all I know war itself is meaningless—but I could lose faith in everything before I lost faith in the fact that when the soldier risks his life for his friend there is meaning there… So before we write-off man in disgust or indifference, we must remember that when we do so it is only man in the abstract, man in general, that we are writing-off. We still have faith in a great many men we know—but we will never see them unless we begin our descent.
Vince Reighard is a senior from Brusnwick, Ohio, majoring in Political Science.