“Don’t just do something, stand there!” This amusing inversion of every exasperated parent’s command to a child staring dazedly at ____ [a heap of still-unfolded laundry, a half-erected tent about to collapse, a bleeding sibling] has been variously attributed to Elvis Presley, Dwight Eisenhower, Catherine Hepburn, and the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.
The point the inverted imperative makes is a fine one: i.e. sometimes, rather than frenetically moving so as to appear productive, it is better to stand still and do nothing. Of course, it’s not the standing that’s the point. It’s what the standing allows for: the careful clarification of the goal of action, or the best means of achieving it, or perhaps merely the quiet appreciation of some appreciable thing.
Anyway, it came to mind recently as I re-watched Youtube vlogger Casey Neistat having the words “do more” tattooed in scrawling script on his forearm. If the camera is to be believed, Neistat found the time to get inked somewhere during a whirlwind, 10-day circumnavigation of the globe, with stopovers in Paris, Cairo, London, Johannesburg, Zambia, Nairobi, the Vatican, Doha, Bangkok, and more.
You’ve seen the ad. Or, if not, 30 million other people have. A great fuss was made at the time it was released about the fact that Neistat had taken the budget given him by Nike, tossed the prepared script, and blown the money on airplane tickets to as many countries (13) and cities (16) as he could visit in an insane week-and-a-half dash around the planet. (All filmed, of course. And given the massive “brand exposure” the viral video delivered, I feel consoled knowing that Nike execs must have long ago absolved Neistat’s alleged transgressions.)
I remember seeing the ad when it first came out. A friend of mine – an inveterate traveler herself – posted it to her Facebook page. You can watch it here. Anyway, I remember getting to the end, and feeling distinctly nonplussed.
Judging by the inspirational quotes scattered throughout – “Life is either daring adventure, or nothing at all” (Helen Keller); “Above all, try something” (Franklin Roosevelt) – the viewer was supposed to view Neistat’s journey with some mixture of awe and admiration and envy. That the creators thought there was something deep here, something to be imitated if one wished to live a meaningful life, was further confirmed by the ad’s slogan: “make it count.”
But I’m a dull and a cynical man, and my mind immediately formulated an arithmetical problem: 10 days, divided by X number of cities, and Y number of flights. The solution? A miserably few hours at each destination, and those few hours spent entirely in a frantic scramble to get the “money shot” (usually of Neistat running past some recognizable landmark that, if we are honest, serves as little more than a prop to impart a varnish of exoticism to a piece of athletic apparel).
In the end, for all the upbeat music and inspirational quotes, the impression left by the restless montage of airports, bad airplane food, and a bleary-eyed Neistat racing past the pyramids or trying to catch his next flight is of a giant, expensive, unpleasant and self-important waste of time.
Too cynical, you say? Listen to Neistat when asked if others should imitate his example: “No! It’s ridiculous! What I should say first is that this trip was more expensive than I could ever afford. If anyone, including me, could ever afford a trip around the world, don’t ever do it in such a narrow span of time. Take your time and embrace it.”
To his credit, the man has some sense. Also, his ad is edited quite cleverly, and, I presume, sold quite a lot of shoes.
How to see
To visit Paris, Cairo, London, Johannesburg, Zambia, Nairobi, the Vatican, Doha, and Bangkok, for however brief a period of time, may seem a very exciting and desirable thing. And, indeed, at the risk of appearing to backpedal, I will grant Neistat so much: there undoubtedly was something bold and adventuresome about the very effort. And it is this, I suppose, that resonated with so many viewers. Perhaps, yes, there was something wasteful and superficial about the feat; but at least it was not the wastefulness and superficiality of, say, punching numbers into a spreadsheet for eight mind-numbing hours a day, five days a week, for a paycheck.
And yet, I cannot shake the conviction that his ad serves as a neat encapsulation of our age’s pathological thirst for novelty: so that even our travel is now little more than a frantic effort to check as many boxes as possible, to place one more pin on the map on our Facebook profiles, representing all the countries in the world on which our bodies have, however briefly, cast a shadow.
But if this novelty is the sole goal for which we strain our sinews, will we ever – I wonder – have any experience one-tenths as transcendent and life-altering as that of Hilaire Belloc who, upon catching his first glimpse of the Alps during his celebrated pilgrimage on foot from France to Rome, wrote:
Here were these magnificent creatures of God, I mean the Alps, which now for the first time I saw from the height of the Jura; and because they were fifty or sixty miles away, and because they were a mile or two high, they were become something different from us others, and could strike one motionless with the awe of supernatural things. Up there in the sky, to which only clouds belong and birds and the last trembling colours of pure light, they stood fast and hard; not moving as do the things of the sky. They were as distant as the little upper clouds of summer, as fine and tenuous; but in their reflection and in their quality as it were of weapons (like spears and shields of an unknown array) they occupied the sky with a sublime invasion: and the things proper to the sky were forgotten by me in their presence as I gazed.
To what emotion shall I compare this astonishment? So, in first love one finds that this can belong to me.
But Belloc did not stop by noticing, in however much detail, the appearances of things; for he had the time, during the slow, laborious march up to and over those mountains, to allow his attention to rove about freely, penetrating below the surface, into significances. And so he wrote, further:
These, the great Alps, seen thus, link one in some way to one’s immortality. Nor is it possible to convey, or even to suggest, those few fifty miles, and those few thousand feet; there is something more. Let me put it thus: that from the height of Weissenstein I saw, as it were, my religion. I mean, humility, the fear of death, the terror of height and of distance, the glory of God, the infinite potentiality of reception whence springs that divine thirst of the soul; my aspiration also towards completion, and my confidence in the dual destiny. For I know that we laughers have a gross cousinship with the most high, and it is this contrast and perpetual quarrel which feeds a spring of merriment in the soul of a sane man.
Since I could now see such a wonder and it could work such things in my mind, therefore, some day I should be part of it. That is what I felt.
Would anyone, racing past the Alps in a high-speed train, on his way to spend a half a day in Milan, and perhaps another half a day in Venice, just in order to say he has “been there”, have seen them in this way, in such detail, and in such depth? It seems doubtful. For the paradox is that it was the very limits inherent in Belloc’s chosen method of travel that served so to expand his horizons, providing the space and time he needed to think such thoughts, and to bequeath them to us in his immortal prose.
The urgent question, then, that I believe our age, and each of us in turn, need ask ourselves is this: By which measure ought we to measure the scale and scope of our lives? By motion made and distance traveled, or by attention given and meaning grasped? Or, to use Neistat’s choice phrase, which of these is the better way to “make it count”: to learn to attend successfully to the ordinary wonders in front of our noses (a path that is open to every one of us, however poor), or, at great expense and effort, to “see” all the wonders of the world, but with unseeing eyes and soul unmoved?
This article first appeared in Gilbert! Magazine – the official magazine of the Chesterton Society – and is reprinted here with permission.
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