Having led eight high school classes on trips to New York City, I have developed a fairly tight game plan. This year’s trip to New York came with the first significant rule change in almost a decade: no phones.
I am still haunted by my first trip to New York. Since 2011, I have led eight separate classes to New York City to see museums and Broadway shows, to walk the Brooklyn Bridge, to gawk at Times Square, and to take in the mysterious spectacle of the city itself. My memories of that first trip are still stinging and fresh, like the half second a man must wait before a paper cut begins to bleed. However, each trip after the first one has becomes hazier and hazier, exactly the way memory is not supposed to work.
And why? On that first trip to New York, I had no cell phone.
Last year, on the train ride back from New York, I was tagged in a Google photo album which contained all the photos my sophomore students had taken during our four days in the city. Without exaggeration or hyperbole, I believe the class had collectively taken ten thousand pictures. Around half the photos were simply photos of themselves, standing in front of (and obscuring) famous works of art and architecture. Upon returning back to Richmond, I gave the class a survey about the trip and asked, “What will you remember from this trip ten years from now?” Not surprisingly, the most common answer to this question was, “I will remember having a good time with my friends.”
While poring over their reflections on the trip, I decided to contact as many former students as possible and find out what they recalled from the trip seven or eight years down the road. Most of them said they remembered the beauty of the art at the Metropolitan, the Frick, and the Cloisters. They also remembered the splendor and squalor and incomprehensible size of the city. Since I had seen them last, these students had gone to college and travelled Europe. Many were married and a few even had children. Very few of them still had deep, abiding relationships with their high school friends.
We claim to take photographs because photographs will help us remember. Without photographs, we would forget the past. However, photographs will only help us remember the past if the act of taking a photo is a little unusual or a little rare. What is true of drinks is also true of photographs: one is just right, two is too many, three is too few. The more common photographs become, the less they mean, and the less something means, the more of it we need. Like money, photographs are subject to laws of inflation. Getting a photograph to matter in 2019 is a bit like getting a ruble to matter in 1992.
The first time I went to New York, I took no pictures. The second time, I took less than a dozen on a flip phone with fewer pixels than I have fingers. By my fourth or fifth trip to New York, however, I was taking hundreds of photos, sorting through them every evening, meticulously editing them, and posting them to my growing number of social media accounts. As a consequence, my memories of New York have become increasingly indistinct and murky.
While that first trip to New York was not exactly a pilgrimage, it was close. I remember standing before El Greco’s “Christ Carrying the Cross” for twenty minutes. I remember a reliquary of the True Cross at the Morgan and stealing a kiss of veneration on the glass case. Phones make tourists of us all, though, and tourists are not pilgrims. Tourists want to have a good time, but pilgrims want to see something holy. The purpose of a pilgrimage (to Damascus or Jerusalem, say) is to teach the pilgrim about the nature of life; all of life is a journey to God, and so a pilgrimage is a microcosm of life. A closely observed pilgrimage is a tutorial on being human.
Nonetheless, most Christians have never been on a pilgrimage of any kind. We are increasingly skeptical that holy things exist, especially holy places. A man can worship God as easily on a golf course as a cathedral, so we play games to the glory of God. The priesthood of all believers means no person is holier than another. A fear of Catholicism has largely gutted the calendar of holy days and holy seasons. The relentless, unqualified insistence that salvation is “a free gift” has taken from us the holy acts of almsgiving and fasting. What are we left with? Christians are left with their obsession with having a good time. In America, when Christians gather together, the prayer which begins most events— a breakfast, a dinner, a birthday party, a slide show— invariably concludes with the petition that God would give us “a good time” and that we would “just have fun together.” There is nothing which American Christians more frequently ask of God than this.
And why not? We are holy enough already. There is nothing holier than the mirror which we need to see. There is nothing holier than fried chicken which we need to eat. There is no place holier than the movie theater where we need to go. There is nothing holier than sex which we need to do. The saved man is simply in a situation where he needs to run down the clock of life in as pleasant a manner as possible.
This fixation on “a good time” means our lives are less and less memorable because, in our hearts, we know that having fun is really not that important. The love of God is important, the pursuit of virtue is important, the redemption of suffering is important, but the only people who talk about having a good time more than Christians are frat boys and contestants on “The Bachelorette.” In fact, one simply cannot watch vapid dating shows without encountering (over and over again) the standard self-introduction of new participants, “Hi, my name is Jen. I’m studying to be a nurse and I just love hiking and working out and having a good time with my friends.” The love of a good time tends to be a standard hobby of those who engage in competitive dating.
I believe there is something profoundly shallow and soulless about claiming to enjoy “having a good time” without any reference to how. I love having friends over for dinner, teaching Paradise Lost, writing a sardonic essay, taking my little daughters out for breakfast, and shopping for records, which is to say that I have a good time doing these things— but my having a good time doing these things is an accident of the fact that I believe these things are worth doing. Doing these things is, for a variety of reasons, important. However, the undefined and unspecified love of “a good time” is simply profligate. Liquor and loose women generally make a very short distance between a young man and a good time, hence the prodigal son. St. Paul commands the Ephesians to make “the best use” of their time, but we’re quick to defend anything at all which “builds community,” even if the community we’re building exists merely to have a good time (and take sick people casseroles).
Before going to New York this year, I told my students that I did not care whether they had a good time or not on the trip. “The more fun you have, the more quickly the trip will fade from your memory. When we go to the Metropolitan, I would like you to take a leisurely stroll around rooms which are full of beautiful things. I would like you to quietly take in the paintings. Jot down a few notes about paintings you would like to talk about later. You could have far more fun walking around the Modern section, joking about Jackson Pollock, or taking silly pictures of each other in front of Washington Crossing the Delaware. But I don’t want you to have a good time. I want you to do good, to see good, and to think good. I don’t want you to ‘build community’ with your classmates while we’re in New York. I want you to commit yourself to the difficult work of expanding your soul now so that you have more to offer your community later. In New York, talk with your friends less. Be circumspect. Soak up as much as you can so that when you talk with your friends next week, your conversation is heady and full. You can go back to having a good time with your friends when the trip is over.”
After four days away, we returned from New York last night. Everyone took a phone, but no one was permitted the use of a phone during the day. Students who wanted to take photos could bring a camera. I encouraged everyone to buy ten-dollar disposable cameras and simply not take more than twenty-seven pictures, a single roll of film. Only readers who have led large groups on long excursions away from home will understand this comment, nonetheless, I offer it to all: the less a man cares about having a good time, the less he complains. The less he complains, the more grateful he is, and with gratitude comes understanding and wisdom. Having often admonished my students that having a good time in New York did not matter, they gave themselves over to whatever the trip had to offer. They did not complain, and when they became bored or tired, they did not distract themselves with fun.
I have never seen a class learn more. I have never seen a class gain so much.