I have been house sitting for the past few weeks for friends who went on vacation. They live in a nice, four-bedroom house with a spacious yard and pool. My main job consists of caring for two dogs, taking out and bringing in the garbage, and watering the roses. None of this is complicated, even with weekly visits by a maid, pool cleaner, and gardener.
However, it is a lot to keep track of, especially when the dogs look to me not only for sustenance but entertainment. One follows me everywhere. They also produce more waste than they consume in dog food, which I didn’t think was a physical possibility, but, then I’ve lived in a four-floor walk up with no pets for the past ten years. So, what do I know?
Things got interesting the other day when a neighbor approached me as I was about to get into my car to go to work. The fact that I haven’t owned a car for ten years is also interesting but best left for another post.
The neighbor introduced himself and then proceeded to tell me about his life. In just a few minutes, I learned that he is retired with two adult children, where they live, the year he moved into the neighborhood, that he had intestinal surgery a year ago, and how he would like to move out of the area but is afraid his medical plan won’t cover him. And, of course, he told me the plan. He also provided an abridged history of the neighborhood before ending with praise for the people whose house I was watching.
I don’t think I could have been more surprised if he had handed me the keys to his car before walking away.
Maybe I have that face, although I doubt it. It’s got to be more than that. It’s also more than a retired guy itching to talk to someone. Telling our story and sharing our lives are central to being human. So, I don’t blame him for wanting to talk. But the guy doesn’t know me from Adam (or Eve). How could he have determined that I am reliable enough to confide in? It wasn’t because I wheeled in the recycling bin that he generously wheeled out the night before. Thin ice, that.
It has become conventional wisdom that we share too much on the Internet and hand over confidential data to high tech and social media megaliths like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, which then make billions selling the information to advertisers. But we still hand over the information, often gladly, trading freedom and privacy for convenience.
But do we not also derive satisfaction knowing that we will live forever in recorded phone conversations and undeletable instant messages and email? And let’s not forget blog posts.
In a sense, this was the neighbor’s motive more than anything else. He seemed like an intelligent guy, one not fooled easily. He may have decided I was not a threat, but that does not make us blood brothers. Rather, the conversation was more about his need to be heard and recognized, which sociologists tell us is one of the basic drives behind human behavior. But then anybody with a teenager knows that.
There is a morning prayer in the Divine Office that asks: “Curb thou for us the unruly tongue. Teach us the way of peace to prize, and close our eyes against the throng of earth’s absorbing vanities.”
Curbing the tongue and closing the eyes are not actions designed to tell a story. The idea behind the prayer is that those praying it enter into the ongoing story of Christian redemption. Their personal story becomes part of the larger story from which it derives worth and meaning.
But if our stories are not our own, neither do they belong to the state or to the state’s proxies, those data mining conglomerates engaged in social engineering and behavior modification. They are already committed to smart cars, smart clothes, smart appliances, and smart cities where privacy will cease to exist.
And when that happens we will all be living in glass houses.