Nearly two centuries ago, the English Romantic poet John Keats died of consumption in Rome. He was only 25 years old.
There is a vast difference between 19th-century and 21st-century twenty-somethings. By 23, Keats had already written “Ode to a Nightingale,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and “Bright Star,” just a few of his best-known works. His poems have emotional depth, a sharp awareness of experience, and I am moved every time I read his writing.
Perhaps it’s the tragedy of his short life that adds shades of meaning to his works. I can’t fathom dying at 25, not with the way the world is now. Besides huge improvements in medicine and quality of life, there’s a kind of immortality or invincibility that comes with technology. Anyone can do anything, say anything on the internet. You can live a completely different life when you’re online, and even if you die IRL, there’ll be ways to have a social afterlife.
Thing is, when we spend hours and hours in front of the computer, or even minutes here and there on our smartphones, it’s easy to forget what real life feels like. The brisk wind on your cheeks, the weight of a pudgy baby on your hip, the cliched-for-a-reason smell of fresh roses. There are moments and feelings that can never substitute for online exchanges.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love technology. I love that I can whip out my phone and find the nearest cafe with real hot chocolate, and I love taking, editing, and sharing photos whenever I want. I work in social media, and I’ve had some awesome exchanges with strangers thousands of miles away. Technology opens a lot of doors.
But what about the doors that are already open? Or things that don’t even have doors, need doors? What about real conversations, in real life? Salivating over real food and not just food porn? There are beautiful things in the world, and we don’t need technology to appreciate them. We just need to slow down, learn to be sharply aware, cultivate emotional depth–all the things Keats and his contemporaries accomplished by the age of 25. Real immortality lies in experience, which is why we still read classic literature and ponder ancient works of art. Keats got it right:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing…