Oh, to have been present at San Diego’s Glorietta Bay on July 4, 2012.
If I add up all the Fourth of Julys, Friday Nights at baseball stadiums, and New Years celebrations, I bet I’ve seen close to fifty different fireworks displays over the course of my life. I’ve seen them from my seat in the third balcony at Busch Stadium, from the bed of a pickup truck in rural Indiana, and from a community college front lawn in Kansas City. There was even the fortuitous occasion where I was sitting in the window seat of a Delta flight over St. Louis thirty minutes after dark on Independence Day. Dozens of bursts of light dotted the landscape below as far as I could see. I was surprised by how small they looked from 30,000 feet.
Then there was the time I lay on the pavement of the casino parking lot on an Indian Reservation in central Washington where my suburban county’s zoning and safety laws did not apply. The rockets burst in the sky directly overhead, raining down little bits of acrid paper all around us.
But nothing I’ve ever seen could come close to what the people of San Diego witnessed on July 4, 2012. What was supposed to be a twenty-minute display ended up lasting just fifteen seconds as a malfunction in the detonators caused the entire display—hundreds of individual fireworks—to all go off at once.
Here’s the thing. And I promise you this is true. I am not a fireworks enthusiast. I don’t buy them from roadside stands. I don’t angle for the best seat at the fairgrounds. I don’t purchase patriotic t-shirts. But when I think about those thousands who gathered at Glorietta Bay, I get a little jealous. Why? Because those fortunate folks in San Diego witnessed what will likely be the greatest fireworks display of my lifetime. And I wasn’t there. They got to see something no video or picture will ever do justice to. You can’t capture moments like that on film or phone. You just have to be there.
So many things in life fall into this category—events you simply cannot bottle for later—like the birth of a child, the funeral of a loved one, a sunset, the presentation and enjoyment of a great meal, a surprise party, a concert, climbing out of a cold tent in the mountains and restoking the campfire as you watch the sun come up, sifting through the rubble of a flood or a fire, kissing your daughter’s forehead as the nurses wheel her off to surgery, asking your girlfriend to marry you, or watching a thunderstorm roll in.
In our amazing era of digital immediacy, I can tell the world where I am and what I’m doing while I’m doing it. I can present myself as a busy man living a rich and full life. I can take pictures of my meals, log my locations, snap photos of the people I’m with, and weigh in on what’s happening around the globe 140 characters at a time. But none of these things mean I’ve been paying attention.
The degree to which we are able to be present in the moment, psychologists say, is one of the chief indicators of mental health and security in our personal identity. I can buy that. And I would submit that this takes courage—courage to believe an experience itself is of greater value than documenting that it happened.
Every day of my life is filled with moments that cannot be captured—moments more glorious than what took place on that San Diego night. We have to hold these moments with an open hand and pay attention. But it’s hard to pay attention, isn’t it? When it comes to wonder and glory, if we’re honest wouldn’t we have to confess that there comes a point where we run out of the energy needed to remain engaged, where we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home comforted by the fact that we took a lot of great pictures?
Take all the pictures you want. They’ll only serve to instruct you in the truth that none of your clips or still images managed to capture what was really happening in the moment. Go ahead. Watch this pretty awesome video of the 2012 San Diego fireworks and you’ll know, as amazing as it is, that you’re not seeing anything close to what those who gathered there in the bay that night actually experienced.
Life is filled with wonder and beauty. Tonight’s sunset is a gift we cannot preserve for tomorrow. But tomorrow, we’ll get a new one. And another the night after that. It’s okay to put away our cameras.
“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” —Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse