by Ashley Larsen
When I lived in Portugal, life was beautiful. Sparkling beaches, milky-stoned monuments, soaring cathedrals with brilliant stained glass windows that seemed to defy gravity. I walked down the street in the mist-like rain, the hard corners of the cobblestone leaving its imprints on my feet and on my heart, and I felt there was something inexplicably fairytale-like about the laundry waving out of the windows. My eyes wandered, taking in the quaint shop fronts with glazed tiles and brightly colored awnings. It was real life, don’t get me wrong—I felt cliche as I pinched myself multiple times to make sure, but at the same time I knew it wasn’t maintainable reality. You can’t make a living strolling the streets and eating pastries.
When I got outside of the capital, the glittering facade began to fade and I found myself exposed to a harsh reality. In Sacavém, there was the well-to-do part of the city, and then there was the other side. We had to walk down the street from our house, follow a little alley that led to a well-beaten path through a tunnel with too many shadows under the overpasses, then walk through a field before finally emerging into another alley crowded by weeds. The houses were run down and smaller than my bedroom at home, yet whole families somehow fit inside. The roofs were caving in, the plaster peeling off the front, and the doors were crooked—you were lucky if you got a door that hadn’t already been broken open multiple times. To my naïve 19-year-old self, it was horrifying. How could people live this way?
Continuing up the alleyway, the road broadened and split off into other side streets. Following one to the left, we eventually found ourselves at a dead end with weeds all around and a crooked apartment building that looked like it was about to crumble. We pushed the door open (the key hole had been forced too many times), climbed up the stairs in the darkness (the light didn’t work), and knocked loudly on the door (the doorbell was broken). Our friend Suaila, a young mother of three, opened the door and let us in. Just around the corner we could see all of the kids practically bouncing off the walls with too much energy for a too tired mom. They had runny noses and the nine-month-old was lying on a bare mattress on the floor as his three-year-old and five-year-old siblings tumbled about. And then there was Suaila’s husband in front of the TV, completely tuned out from the chaos all around him, unaware of the attention his kids needed. The paint was chipping from the walls, the bare bulb barely gave enough light to see, and the couches were covered in holes. But they had a large flat screen television, a TV service with a wide variety of channels, and smartphones. All while their house was practically falling in on itself and there was hardly any food in the cupboard.
I left their house that night confused, but looking back now I shudder. If I could see such a blatant twist in priorities in this family, then was this crookedness in myself as well? Were my necessities of life no longer food and shelter and love, but instead TV channels and internet and social media?
My time in Portugal ended and I came back to my studies at BYU. A few days ago I was on campus finishing up some homework for the night, my nose buried in Persuasion as I drank in Jane Austen’s beautiful critique of life and love and social class and family matters. I looked up at the clock and realized that over an hour had gone by. I glanced to my right. To my surprise, I saw a boy sitting there, half off of the couch, his eyes glued to the computer screen that was balanced precariously on his knees, his fingers dancing across a video game controller. Sitting on another couch was a girl dressed in sophisticated button-up with a stylish blazer. She appeared professional, yet I noticed her eyes glaze over as she scrolled through her endless Instagram feed.
My mind jumped to a million rants. I wanted to stand up on my soapbox and tell them to get off their technology, pull their heads out of the clouds, and return to the real world. But as my scathing realist jumped to its feet, my inner subconscious shied away. After all, had I not just done the same thing? Maybe my mind wasn’t in megapixels, but it sure wasn’t in Provo. Could Jane Austen’s tantalizing world of Uppercross and coastal English towns be better than the imagined worlds of Instagram or Call of Duty?
As I allowed my subconscious to process the difference between our chosen suspensions of reality, I realized that I was just as guilty of escaping reality. Allowing texts to be more important that babysitting, being glued to the movie and not paying attention to my little brothers, checking the latests posts on Facebook instead of interacting with my friends. It had become commonplace to leave our own reality that we forget what it’s like to be completely engaged in the moment.
Though these experiences happened oceans apart, they taught me the same thing. As humans, we try to suspend reality. We get distracted. We allow ourselves to forget what is actually important. Life is too precious to be wasted submerged in virtual realities.
It’s escapism. It’s human. It’s an attempt to avoid and alleviate and ignore. Can our lives not be raw and real, unburdened with unrealistic expectations and supposed social norms? Why do we insist on this filtered existence, this suspension of reality?
Ashley Larson is an aspiring editor with a passion for stars, em dashes, and beautiful words. She is a sophomore at BYU studying Interdisciplinary Humanities with an emphasis in English and a minor in Editing.