In 1986, Paul Simon took a look at the headlines full of pain and promise—stories about a boy in a bubble, bombs in baby carriages, ubiquitous cameras, and the ever-constant streams of information that engulf us—and wrote “Boy in the Bubble.” His lyrics, coupled with Zulu-pop-infused instrumentals recorded in South Africa, conveyed a jaunty optimism, with an undercurrent of nerve-jangling foreboding:
These are the days of miracle and wonder This is the long-distance call The way the camera follows us in slo-mo The way we look to us all The way we look to a distant constellation That’s dying in the corner of the sky These are the days of miracle and wonder And don’t cry baby don’t cry Don’t cry
The world has only become more miraculous and wonder-filled since then: We’ve seen reports of a little girl, born without a windpipe, who was fitted with one created from her own adult stem cells. In little more than a generation, computers, cell phones, and cameras have been combined into something we can hold in the palm of our hand, or even wear near our eyes.
So comfortable are we with interactive technology that we barely notice the electronic eyes on every corner watching us as we walk or drive. Algorithms are used to track our every move: what we are reading, where we are vacationing, and what spiritual or medical direction we are seeking out. Yet we shrug them off because they so helpfully recommend what next to do with our lives.
Miracle and wonder, yes, and yet instead of looking up at a nighttime sky full of movement and light and infinite depth, we keep our heads down. We can no longer see that sky for the artificial illumination we mistake for light. But no matter; it is empty of interest. We have pierced its boundaries and walked the stardust. Having been there, done that, we’ve narrowed our exploration to whatever we can see through our five-inch screens. Informationally, the world is ever-broadening, but our interests continue to narrow as we close in on ourselves. In our reading, our entertainment, our news venues, our social media, our political involvements, we seek out echo chambers we may depend upon to repeat us back to ourselves in a reassuring loop, with dissenting ideas continually pruned away for the sake of purity. Settled within virtual enclaves of the like-minded, we bask in an illusion that most sensible people think as we do, and when we are forced to venture out beyond our unsullied orthodoxies and ideologies the world feels increasingly dangerous and disordered, and we cannot wait to get back to our safe zones, which are really ourselves.
We used to read about “the boy in the bubble” and feel sorry for him. He was trapped within a limited world free of exposure to even the “good” germs and bacteria that keep our immune systems adept, functional, and ready to withstand and beat back infection. Now we have become him. Though our bodies may wander freely, we keep our minds and spirits tethered to what is comfortable, unchallenging, and pristine, until our mental and spiritual immune systems become so weakened that a mere difference of opinion feels like an assault, and an encounter with an opportunistic bully can send us reeling to the canvas.
Self-idolization is a natural by-product of the instrumentalization of our age, and it is weakening us. The GPS destroys our sense of direction; social scientists cripple our instinctive knowing. The world says True North is a relative concept, and so whatever path one takes is the right one—the path to the All-Knowing Me, who knows nothing and is stranded and alone, and weak.
A look at the headlines is enough to know that these are the days of bullying and idols—of menace and braggadocio, browbeating and constraint. We see it in authority seeking to control; we see it in media and moralists who pester us into mental submission; it lives within us when we oust the theologically untaught or ideologically confused among us, and settle for our own comfortable understanding.
We need to look up, again, if we are to become strong enough to shake off our own tendencies toward idolatry, and fend off the hectoring bullies. We need to gaze starward, and beyond, into the vastness of the One who created everything by the full-out intention of his “yes,” and then trust in the rightness of that intention with all our being. To face the coming battles we will need to look far beyond “a distant constellation, that’s dying in a corner of the sky” and grow strong, again, through the paradox of dependence and surrender.
Beyond the present powers and principalities, these are, still and ever, days of miracle and wonder, of right paths that can lead us safely home. These are the days of miracle and wonder, and “don’t cry, baby, don’t cry” is just another way of saying, “do not be afraid.”
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of Aleteia’s English edition. This piece appeared at First Things in 2013, and is reprinted here with kind permission, on the inspiration of Peggy Noonan’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal.