|Suppose all the gods were killed by electric light?|
|--Derek Walcott, "The Saddhu of Couva"|
The people of Tinsbury, Jamaica, frequently urge me to call government officials and beg for electricity. "We long for light," they say. I make calls and bring back reports--"Tinsbury is in Phase I of the rural electrification program" or "They're at the other end of the island now" or "Maybe next year." But despite the official procrastination, the day will certainly come.
I contemplate it with some regret. I go up to Tinsbury in the evening for church council meetings, and as we leave the church, carrying kerosene bottles with their smoky flames, the hills are bathed in moonlight. On nights with a new moon, the stars splay across the sky. Everywhere in Jamaica the blare of reggae and deejay music follows the electric lines, but here we leave an evening meeting to the soft murmur and laughter of easy camaraderie. Whatever the contentions and quarrels of the meeting, everyone's spirit is softened in the night's beauty and stillness.
I tell people that it won't be so nice when they have electricity. I tell them electricity doesn't make people better; it just gives them more opportunities to be worse. I warn them that people will stop coming to church events because they will be watching television. To all these mournful admonitions they reply, "Yes, Father, it's true. But we long for light."
And why should they listen to me? I drive away to my house where there is light, a cold drink and leftovers in the fridge, a television to entertain me, an electric fan to cool me. I enjoy all the benefits of the electric grid inching its way into the remotest parts of the island.
We have been committed for generations to the benefits of electricity and internal combustion. Esoteric concerns like gene splicing and cyberspace only represent tinkering with a fundamental option made long ago. The occasional lonely group, like the Old Order Mennonites or the rare Jamaican farmer who stays far back in the hills, will question that option, but the rest of us prefer to keep the drudgery of our unlighted past in museums and pioneer villages.
Our hearts are restless until they rest in ease. Some day the people of Tinsbury will get light, and then they will long for telephones. They'll get telephones and long for washing machines. They'll get washing machines and long for cars. There will always be something to long for. And they will always be longing because they will never achieve the material lifestyle of North America. I tell the people of Tinsbury that people in North America may be richer, but they are no happier. In fact, I say, they are worse off because they are turning into pagans. "Yes, Father," they reply, "but we long for light."
Every advance in technology increases human isolation. We have lights and can no longer see stars. We listen to radios and can no longer hear one another. Technology is weaving a cocoon around us, and what will emerge? Homo occidentalis? Overweight and compulsively pursuing low-cal foods and aerobics because physical work is unnecessary? Neurotic because interaction with other people interferes with entertainment? Pagan because the numinous cannot penetrate the comfort zone? Such is the direction of human evolution.
Sometimes I say to them, "You want light, but it is Jesus Christ who is the light of the world."
"Yes, Father, that's true," they reply. "But we long for light."
Of course, life in Tinsbury can be hard, and electricity would ease a bit of the burden. I don't really oppose it. But I rather wish, before they eagerly leap onto the slippery slope, that they would stop and ask themselves where they will draw the line. Perhaps like the Old Order Mennonites they might say, "We will go so far, but no further." Perhaps they might agree to use created things only insofar as they help in a quest for human wholeness, and to reject them insofar as they are a hindrance. Perhaps they will discover that the pursuit of a life of ease is not enough to give sense and depth to one's life.
Then I could go to Tinsbury and wash the homo occidentalis out of my soul. After all, when I go home now to my well-lit cocoon of comfort, I find myself also longing for light.
Martin Royackers SJ works in a rural development project in Annotto Bay, Jamaica. He was Compass's managing editor from 1990 to 1994 and is now its Jamaica correspondent.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld