Fifty years ago the sight of someone talking to himself would have elicited either sympathy – poor thing, he's a bit soft in the head, you know; or suspicion – we would have crossed the street or walked away quickly.
I remember once seeing someone earnestly addressing a garbage bin outside a large city store. Hhmmm, I thought. Interesting. It wasn't until I had walked past that I saw the mobile phone 'brick' in his hand. Mobile phones were still a novelty then.
Nowadays people everywhere are chatting to invisible others. Nothing unusual in that at all.
The lad in the café rated hardly a second glance. He sat alone in the window. At his feet a couple of folders spilled out of a large well-worn backpack. From the earpiece in his left ear a white filament snaked down to the smartphone in his top pocket. In his right ear the blue light of a wireless device flashed intermittently. On the small table in front of him was a frothy cappuccino and an open laptop. Beside the coffee mug a small tablet glowed with many colours.
He was talking into an inline mic on the white filament, fiddling with the volume control, nodding and grunting at someone unseen. Quite an animated conversation, it seemed. One hand poked at the keyboard on the laptop while the fingers of the other hand deftly swiped across the kaleidoscope of colours on the tablet. A game, a conversation or two, and typing ... all at once. Communication central!
But ... He was alone
The latte art on his coffee flattened, untouched. He was talking and gaming and typing but he may as well have been invisible. The only connection to the world outside the café was via the ether and the umbilical cord of the phone. And he seemed OK with that.
He didn't notice other people coming and going; the young mums on a coffee date with friends, or the excited toddlers playing with their spoons and their babyccinos. He was unaware of the older folk chatting with friends and doing the crossword or reading the daily papers. All the hubbub of a city café failed to penetrate the electronic shield of the man who sat alone as if in a bubble.
Social commentators have noticed a paradox: as global communication has increased in speed and frequency, so have we become more isolated from one another. Our contacts and our understanding of world events are more shallow. Where once news and in-depth analysis of wars, disasters, weather events, and celebrity shenanigans would take days, weeks or even longer to spread across the world, now it is instant.
And it's overwhelming and it's usually 'bad news'.
We sense danger in the world out there and the 24-hour news cycle with its sound-bites and video-grabs feeds our fear constantly. It fills our screens with filtered trivia so that we can numb any feelings of alarm. (How many fluffy animal videos did you watch this week? Well, I admit to watching a few, but they were very cute.)
There are frequent warnings – keep safe, stranger danger, don't take risks, be alert. We withdraw from the street and community. We lock the doors, draw the curtains, gather with family and trusted friends, put on the kettle and turn on the TV. The screen is our window on the outside world.
There's a perception that the world is too dangerous but that perception is itself the big danger. Apart from being an unhealthy way to live it gives a very distorted view of reality.
Michael Leunig nails it in one of drawings. He depicts a man sitting in a room that has just one chair and a TV and an open window. Outside the window is a magnificent sunset but the man is not looking through the window. He is watching the sunset in real time on his telly.
I don't recall Jesus instructing us to believe in him, and then hunker down and keep safe away from danger and dangerous people, and wait until he comes back for us. He spent a lot of his time out and about, talking about eternal life and sharing the good news, challenging the status quo and mixing with unsavoury people in the streets and markets and meeting places. He told us to 'go forth', take risks and talk to people, share the gospel. Get involved. In this life, here and now.
How can you share anything, much less share the message of Jesus, if you live in fear, inside your own bubble?
Sheelagh Wegman is production editor for the Tasmanian Anglican bi-monthly magazine and does a broad range of editing for self-publishing authors. She belongs to St David's Cathedral in Hobart and lives with husband Kees in bushland on the foothills of Mt Wellington.
Sheelagh Wegman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/sheelagh-wegman.html