Look Me in the Eye When You Say That

We are living in a brave new world (not Huxley’s, though we’re coming closer to his) where things are changing so fast that we aren’t thinking clearly about the adjustments we should be making to maintain our connections to the people around us. This is nowhere more evident than at mealtime.

Is your repast enjoyed leisurely in friendship and with conversation – or is it scarfed down furtively because you don’t want to share that special doughnut or Hershey bar or because you don’t want anyone to know just how much you’re eating? Do you fail to make eye contact, staring at nothing but your plate, mumbling now and then in feigned interest? Or are you staring at something else entirely?

Have your eating habits developed in response to time, or the perceived lack of it? These days people aren’t thinking much about what they’re eating and even less about whom they’re eating it with, if indeed they’re eating with anyone. We’re too busy and too rushed to spend time at the table with family, wasting time talking to each other. Just nuke a box of something in the microwave – leftovers in the fridge or the takeout that cooled in the car on the way home. Then eat it right out of the Tupperware, or maybe the Styrofoam or paper container it came in, or maybe scrape it onto a cheap paper plate and sit at the counter or stand by the sink. Shovel it in. Choke it down. Move on.

Way too much time is wasted sitting down to a home-cooked meal. And even if you manage to do it, say once a week – and that’s asking a lot in some households what with all the activities kids are involved in these days), – the ensuing silence at the table can be deafening. Between bites, the individuals gathered there are playing games on their phones, reading things online, or texting friends. And make no mistake about it, this does not constitute a family meal because while they might inhabit the same room for a few brief moments, they are sitting in their individual bubbles completely disconnected from each other.

The new, but not improved, version of time spent with family.

We eat mindlessly – from microwave to mouth. In a rush standing at the sink. Zoned out in front of the television. With our eyes glued to our handy little smart phones, oblivious to others in the room if, indeed, there’s anyone even there.

Who do you suppose is the “smart” one in these scenarios? Apple, et al. That’s who.

And not only because we are in such a hurry these days but also because we eat much of the time like dogs, taking food in without spending time savoring it, it doesn’t matter how that food is served to us. Laura’s dog, Mojo, appears to open wide and swallow all in one motion sometimes! He’s so anxious to get something special, you’d think he’d want to taste it a little bit, even if only for a second or two.

Why don’t we forget the china and grab something cheap and easy: everyday dishes, the hard plastic, non-breakable kind, or the easily disposable paper plate in a wide variety of strengths suitable for different kinds of meals. Best of all might be that old stand-by – the paper towel, folded over for greater strength and durability as your mouth hovers over the kitchen counter or sink where errant crumbs can fall directly into the disposal. And paper plates eliminate the need for hand-washing or running the dishwasher.

If you’re forced to eat on china, you feel compelled, at least in a subliminal way, to sit down – and slow down. Then you almost have to look at the person next to, or across from, you at the table. To engage in conversation, though most people have forgotten how to do that as well – talking over top of each other vying for “top dog” status instead of taking turns. If we didn’t live in such a hurried world, we might be more inclined to make this time special and give it the importance it deserves. We might actually listen to what others have to say.

But the more casual and less special we make things, the more casual and less important they become. Ergo, the less serious attention we give them. We sit at a restaurant, our ipads and smart phones in hand, never once looking up to make eye contact with parents, siblings, or friends; instead, picking at our food in silence because we just can’t tear ourselves away from our internet connections – even as we become more disconnected from those around us.

I see this happening all the time, even with families with small children. Parents are looking at their phones or at the ipads they’ve propped up in front of them. Little kids have mini-computers and are playing games – taught, by example, that spending quality time with “things” is more important than spending quality time with people.

Words have power, they speak to us – but sometimes silence speaks even louder.

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