We have a movie theater in our town that screens only classic films – ones that you are sure would have been amazing to watch on the large screen when they were new, but (at least in my case) they were new before you were born. This weekend they were screening It’s A Wonderful Life. Now, I have seen this movie so many times, I could probably recite the lines along with the movie, Rocky Horror style, but it is still the quintessential holiday film. There are others, of course – A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th St., and just about any version of A Christmas Carol – but Wonderful Life seems to epitomize that simpler time that we all seem to long for. The question remains, if given the opportunity, would we really enjoy returning to that kind of existence? Or can we somehow find a compromise?
I think about all of the technological advances that have come, in a wide variety of fields, and I know that there are many I would be loathe to live without. At the top of my list would be some of the medical advances that have happened in the past 30 years, particularly in the area of breast cancer research. When I was 12, my paternal grandmother died of the disease. At that time, there was no such thing as yearly mammograms, ultrasound to inspect suspected lumps, or even any training on any front for women to self-examine. My grandmother did not even know she had cancer until it had spread so far into her body that there was not much anyone could do other than to make her comfortable until the end. Fast forward 25 years. One day, my mother found a lump. Within the span of two weeks, she had been examined by her doctor, had mammograms, a sonogram, a needle biopsy and a diagnosis. Within a week of that she had started treatment. Last month she met with her oncologist for the last time. After all, since she has been cancer-free for the last 10 years, he really doesn’t see the need for her ever to come back.
Similarly, the progress that has been made in the area of HIV-AIDS is amazing. When I was in high school, the worst thing that could happen to you if you had unprotected sex was a disease that required a visit to a doctor’s office and a rather embarrassing discussion that ended with a shot of penicillin. When I was in college, the worst was a viral disease that you would have for the rest of your life, with some rather unpleasant sores, but there were drugs that would control it. Toward the end of my college career was the first time I had heard of a sexually transmitted disease that could kill you, but even so, I figured I was immune, as I was never going to be having sex with a gay man. Today, there are over 30 million people living with HIV. Part of that statistic is the rampant spread of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa, but the other part is that today, due to medical advances that have occurred in the last 30 years, people are no longer dying of AIDS like they were in the 80’s. As a matter of fact, with proper treatment and maintenance, an person with HIV can expect to live a normal lifespan, into their 80’s or 90’s, with relatively few HIV-related problems.
I also think about communications. In Frank Capra’s world, the local police officer had to drive up and down the city streets, looking for George to let him know he was needed at home. Running out of gas on a lonely stretch of road used to mean hiking for miles or accepting a ride from a stranger. Clark Kent changed into Superman by ducking into the nearest telephone booth. Enter the cell phone, and suddenly theses scenarios are obsolete. And speaking of Superman, no where has there been a better harbinger of things to come than the scene in Superman: The Movie of Christopher Reeve desperately searching for a phone booth, only to discover an open-style pay phone with no enclosure or door. When cell phones first came into existence, they were big, bulky bricks that were unwieldy tools used only by certain business people. Today, if you are 12 and your parents haven’t gotten you a phone that allows you to text, surf the net, check your email, play games, take pictures and stream movies (not to mention make calls), you are considered a total dweeb by your peers. The ability to communicate with almost anyone on the planet at a moments notice is second nature to us now. I know I have felt lost on those rare occasions that I walk out the door without my phone. How can I call home to check in? What if I feel a sudden urge to call my aunt in Seattle while I am waiting in line at the grocery store? What if there’s an EMERGENCY? If only cell phone usage was limited to emergency situations . . .
Communication advances have also improved the dissemination of information. The advent of the 24-hour news channel and the internet makes us all aware of world news any time of the day or night. I was having a conversation with my husband just the other night about how Nancy Grace’s HLN show anymore seems to be nothing but trying to find the latest missing child. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that a missing child, in any situation, is a horrendous tragedy that I would not ever wish on anyone. But 10 years ago, if a child went missing, it was local news. They didn’t broadcast it on any national networks, and there certainly wasn’t the attention given to missing children today. If a child goes missing today, the ability to let the entire country or world know about the situation, post pictures and descriptions, issue Amber Alerts, and get everyone looking for the child greatly improves the probability that that child will be returned home, safe and sound.
The information age has also sounded the death knell for the old door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. After all, who needs an encyclopedia when one has Google or Wikipedia? Despite that, when a neighbor held a garage sale several years ago, and had a World Book set from 1987 available for $10, I snatched it up. It’s not like there is suddenly going to be new information on folks like Beethoven, George Washington, or Elvis Presley. There is valuable information to be had in an encyclopedia, and even “outdated” ones can be useful. As a matter of fact, we now have two sets of encyclopedias in our home. The other set is Encyclopædia Brittanica from the 1880’s. It belonged to my great-grandparents. I figure if I am still around in 2080, I will buy another set. One every 100 years should keep me up to date. Seriously, having the world at my fingertips is an advance I would not want to give up. Being able to learn about situations around the world help me to appreciate what I have at home or, conversely, prompt me to try and improve myself and my situation.
In the working world, technology has improved the safety of the work environment, expanded job opportunities to entirely new classes of people, and improved the qualities of the products we buy. Labor unions gave workers the ability to unite forces and demand better working environments. Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized manufacturing. The US involvement in World War II introduced women to the manufacturing fields, and equal pay laws helped to level the playing field. At the same time, child labor laws forced children out of the factory and back into the schools, where, by improving their education, they are able to improve their prospects for employment opportunities in the future. And in “Research and Design”, the goal of trying to make the latest widget smaller, faster, stronger, cheaper, longer-lasting and more environmentally friendly seems to be never ending. Computer aided design makes reaching for that goal even easier. Engineers can “test” virtual models in a simulated environment without the cost of actually making a prototype. The end result being better products for the consumer at prices that seem to plummet the longer the product is on the market. Priced a GPS unit or big-screen TV lately?
All of this technology has admittedly improved our lives, but at what price? I am lucky if I can get my family to unite at the dinner table four nights a week. Even so, breakfast and lunch are usually in front of the TV, watching something or playing the XBox. I don’t know most of my kids’ friends because, rather than going to each others’ house’s to play, they party on their gaming systems and text each other late into the night. If they want to see each other, they wait until they are at school. Gone are the days of the entire gang descending upon one child’s house to raid the refrigerator and disappear to study or play a game or just “hang out.” Being able to talk to anyone at the drop of a hat doesn’t mean I am any more connected with those people who are most important in my life. On the contrary, I think to a certain extent I take for granted that I can talk to someone at any time, and therefore I don’t talk to them unless there is a pressing need.
For this holiday season, I propose that we all try and take a moment, and make our lives Wonderful. Take a look at the people around you and really appreciate them for who they are and how they contribute to your happiness. Look at the value of the quality of your life, not just the quantity of what you have. Turn off the cell phone and the TV and gather the family for some Christmas caroling in the neighborhood. Invite your friends to join you for Christmas Eve services at church, and repeat the following mantra:
“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”