I think I am to be congratulated on being thoroughly behind the times. Tonight I watched the first episode of the Twilight Zone, for the first time. Just in case anyone is even more behind the times than I am – well, spoiler alert.
We see a man wandering around a completely abandoned town, where there’s a kettle boiling and a cigar left smoking in the ashtray. Where lights go on at need and movies play, but not a human soul is to be found.
Finally, the man snaps.
He goes insane – both from the feeling of being completely abandoned in this isolated, creepy town, and from the feeling of being watched. He clings to a light pole, bashing his arm frantically against the traffic light button.
“Help me!” he screams, over and over again. “Somebody help me!”
At the close of the episode, we discover that the town – indeed, all of his surroundings and all of the lights and sounds he has encountered – were of his own mind’s making. That he has spent the last two and a half weeks isolated in a box – with all the physical necessities taken care of, of course – nutrition, and waste removal and such.
There have been men watching him the entire time, observing. Because this isn’t just any man. This is a man preparing to go into space for the first time. This is a man who has set his sights on the moon.
I can imagine how, in 1959, before the first manned missions, before we went to the moon, that vast, empty void would look like the loneliest place. Out in space – completely cut off from your loved ones, from all of humanity – must have seemed like the most frightening thing. To be truly alone.
How strange it is then, to me, that it turned out to be the complete opposite. Mr. Serling, despite his best intentions, had no way of knowing that he had it completely reversed.
I don’t imagine astronauts as being lonely – not even on one-man missions. The radio, I imagine, might be slim comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. Any time, day or night (not that I imagine there’s much difference, out there), to be able to hear a human voice on the other end of the radio. Even to be able to hear the voices of your loved ones, however tinny and distant.
I don’t imagine space as lonely. The novelty – the adventure – would’ve outweighed any cost. You are not alone. You are the first. And (pun intended) there is a world of difference between the two.
I remember listening to John Glenn’s reflections on space. There was no fear. There was only wonder at the beauty of space. Somehow, isolated from all you have ever known, even the mundane becomes beautiful.
I don’t suppose that in 1959, years before space flight, before our trip to the moon. Before the Mars Rover. Before cell phones and the internet. Before everything…. I don’t suppose Mr. Serling could have ever suspected that the true isolation would never be in space.
It is right here, in our apartments and our homes. In our cubicles and our dormitories. Isolation follows us like a sad dog. In a world where we can go for hours, or perhaps even days, without the company of a real human, without hearing a a genuine voice speaking to us, we know true isolation. It is possible to spend days with nothing other than the company of a television, or perhaps a computer, with lots of sound and lots of noise coming at you – but none of it intended for you.
It is possible to spend days in silence, if one so wishes, without hearing the sound of a human voice. In this world of technology and internet, of constant contact and noise, it is incredibly easy to simply not communicate. To lose touch with a world that, perhaps, does not want to communicate with you.
In a world with constant noise, it is easy to become lost. When everyone is shouting, the absence of a single voice is not missed.
Sometimes I feel like a human Schrodinger’s cat. If I don’t step out of my apartment, if I don’t answer the phone…. If I speak to no one and no one speaks to me, do I really exist?
No one, it is said, exists in a vacuum. We are who we are – but we only become who we are through the influence of other people. We become the daughters our mothers have raised. We become the friends that our friends come to depend on. No one becomes who they are in a vacuum. Without these connections – these reflections – who are we, really? Are we the same people we were before? Without those who surround you, those who reflect you…. who are you really? And does some part of you cease to exist in absentia?
No one exists in a void.
It would have been impossible to predict, decades ago, that the advances of technology would create holes – more holes than there had been in the past – crevices for us to fall into, to hide.
In a lot of ways, it’s more difficult now, than ever, to disappear. There are social security numbers numbers and finger prints and involved social workers. But it has also become easier than ever to disappear – to be at once so connected and so disconnected as to be absent in one’s own life.
We’ve gotten here in great, leaping bounds, with technology growing exponentially faster – so quickly that I imagine in a little over fifty years, the landscape of our culture has become nearly un-recognizable from what it once was.
And it is not the technology itself, necessarily, that does it. After all, tools are what we make them. It is the miracle of skype that allows my Grandmother to see relatives every day, with whom she would otherwise have had contact for weeks or months – and whom she would not have seen in years.
But in this plentiful world of multiple connections – of facebook and facetime and skype and cell phones and email. When we have so many options, it becomes easy not to choose any of them. To simply fall through the cracks.
In the closing narration, Mr. Serling’s voice tells us, “Up there… Up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting… In the Twilight Zone.”
But it isn’t waiting. The void – the vastness and the isolation and the loneliness – it’s all here, waiting around every corner, in every lonely home. It sits in every polite falsehood and every fake smile – the kind that never quite reach your eyes.
The more connections we have, the easier it is for us to fall into the spaces in between. To fall away from each other and to fall apart, in ways we could never have thought possible.
What we fear has come to pass – the isolation has set in. The void is inside us and all around us and we have to learn to navigate the pathways between ourselves, our families, our friends and the strange, new world we have come to know.