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The Curse of Instant Gratification

February 15, 2009

I was in Washington DC awhile back, and while I was there, I got to experience my favorite city thing: public transportation. I am an avid people watcher and at times an unintentional starer, so this was like a goldmine: hundreds of people, going through something as simple and mundane as getting from point A to point B. And I loved it, lapped it up like a dog with water on a hot summer day.


While going through a metro station, I saw an ad on one of the building columns for some kind of new bottled iced tea. I don’t normally drink tea that comes in bottles so I normally couldn’t care less, but this ad captured my attention because of its tagline: “Gratification so instant, it already happened.” No ad I have ever seen has summed up the consciousness of the modern day world better. I saw it personified in the patrons at the Metro stations, arriving at their platform only to see that the train wasn’t due for another three minutes. THREE minutes? Three entire minutes? It was etched in peoples’ face, this trivial annoyance that snuck in and preoccupied their entire consciousness. While a normal person could hardly do something like brush their teeth or eat a bagel in three minutes, to these waiting people three minutes was like walking blindfolded across the Sahara: tedious and entirely unnecessary. We want what we want when we want it and when it isn’t immediately accessible, we become a generation of four year olds, throwing tantrums because “Sesame Street” isn’t on yet. I found myself catching on to this annoyed preoccupation, slumping sideways, trying to hold up my bag, and exhaling loudly, just to let everyone around me know just how annoyed I was.

But once I got on that train or bus, sat down, and began absorbing my atmosphere, my entire mood changed. I could ride on a subway all day and not get bored. It makes me feel almost like the Ghost of Christmas Past – having a chance to ride along in someone else’s life for awhile, without actually being a part of it. I noticed things that reminded me over and over that these aren’t just people I’m watching like monkeys in a zoo; they are actually real, blood-pumping, breathing people who do things like fall in love, trip over untied shoelaces, and have opinions on how the world works.

I saw it in the woman sitting in front of me, with the most perfect curls I have ever seen, who had mustard on her coat sleeve, maybe from her lunch that afternoon. It was in the Portugese couple whose only words I caught were “global climate change” and it made me realize that Portugal is worried about it too. It was seeing a ribbon tied on some girl’s backpack, wondering where it had come from and what did it mean. People are full of so many beautiful details that in our frenzied rat race for gratification are so easy to miss. It’s so effortless to distance people you don’t know until they aren’t human anymore, until they become objects in a museum or observations written in a notebook. We miss so much when we tune out our senses. There’s a story behind each person, and behind that story, a hundred other stories that all have their own chapter. In an increasingly disconnected world, we have fooled ourselves into thinking that things like Facebook and Twitter are bringing the world together, when really, they mostly just keep our eyes glued tightly to a screen and away from the faces of the people sitting across from you on a train or next to you at a dinner table.

Let’s all do ourselves a favor.
Put away your Blackberry – you don’t need to check your email again.
Turn off your computer – Twitter will still tweet on without you (unfortunately…more about my Twitter distaste later).
Stop gorging yourselves on knowing what’s going on every minute of the day and just stand still.
Talk to the person next to you instead of text messaging them.

You just might find something beautiful.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. this0side0of0the0truth permalink
    February 16, 2009 6:01 pm

    Yes, public transportation is oh so enchanting when you do not have an immediate destination and rarely use it save for people watching.
    And it is oh so disenchanting when its an everyday ordeal.

  2. Caroline permalink*
    February 16, 2009 7:13 pm

    I think because I grew up driving everywhere, even if public transport becomes a commonplace thing, I will always have a thing for it.

    Mostly trains though.
    I love trains.

  3. this0side0of0the0truth permalink
    February 17, 2009 2:28 pm

    They are quite romantic, or so it seems.

    Tolstoy sure had a thing for trains, train stations, and train tracks. When you say train many times over it starts disconnecting from the meaning of the word entirely. Like any repeated word.

    I suppose there is a massive difference between riding the trains in the San Francisco Bay Area and the trains across the European countryside.

  4. Caroline permalink*
    February 18, 2009 8:02 am


    Tolstoy loved trains so much that he threw poor Anna under one. Now that’s devotion.

  5. Glo permalink
    February 18, 2009 1:08 pm

    But if I turned off my computer, I couldn’t read your blog!


  6. ratsekad permalink
    February 18, 2009 2:38 pm

    I NEED another post NOW =)

    I often purposely do things slower to make sure I don’t get caught up in this too much. I will take the 20 minutes to walk downtown. I will brew my own coffee and sit on the patio and read a book. Or I wil type someone a letter on a machine that needs no electricity =)

    But I still get impatient sometimes.
    A man at peace next to a river soon becomes impatient in the traffic of the city.

  7. Caroline permalink*
    February 18, 2009 3:05 pm



    That is all.
    Just πŸ™‚

  8. Caroline permalink*
    February 18, 2009 3:05 pm

    James —

    Sometimes you remind me of a fortune cookie. πŸ™‚ Brew that coffee, read that book and I will still marvel to get a typed letter that wasn’t fresh off of a printer.

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