There’s nothing like waiting in an airport or train station to get you thinking about your life. It’s something to do with leaving and going and the suspended animation in between that has you asking yourself the big questions. At the airport the other day I was sitting next to a man who was so involved in his thoughts, he didn’t realise he was having them aloud. I heard him debate with himself about going home for the weekend – rather than staying in the city he was travelling to. Home life wasn’t what he had hoped it would be. I don’t know what conclusion he reached, because he suddenly jerked out of his reverie and looked shame faced. I just smiled and nodded and pretended that I hadn’t heard a thing. But I wanted to say – ‘I’ve felt that way too before. If it feels so sad to think of home, it’s time to figure out a way to leave.’ But I didn’t. I would have been intruding.
In his book Religion for Atheists author/philosopher Alain de Bottom explored the trappings of religious practice to identify what is most valuable to the reasonable (i.e. non-fanatical) person who accepts that “of course no religions are true in any God-given sense.”
de Bottom goes on to identify that religion traditionally addressed social needs: providing a sense of community that was able to override divisions of class or income. He posits that humans need ritual to create a sense of connection, to create links, to feel included. And suggests that if we are to regain this sense of interconnectedness – we might want to recreate rituals that open us up to togetherness. Think the Eucharistic service taken into a restaurant context: where “our fear of strangers would recede” and “the poor would eat with the rich” . Would a secular blessing and sharing of food in a public space help us to cut through societal barriers?
Or, imagine, he asks, if Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall was replaced by electronic billboards “that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes,” Fascinating thought – when you look at the wall, you can see thousands of small pieces of paper stuck into its crevices and cracks. Each containing an individual’s innermost truths. His or her prayers. AdB suggests that broadcasting these thoughts and fears would remind us that “we are none of us alone in the extent of our troubles and our lamentations.”
Musician and technologist Alan Donohoe and designer and technologist Steven Parker took de Bottom’s thought and ran with it. They created the “The Waiting Wall,” a digital alternative to the Jewish tradition. For a week in late September this year – to coincide with the Brighton Digital Festival, commuters traveling through the U.K.’s Brighton Station were greeted with a visual display that replaced regular travel announcements and advertisements with anonymous hopes, fears, prayers and regrets. Reflecting the thoughts of the people waiting for their trains. Just like my airport man.
The result is quite beautiful. And inspired and sad. Little of the content is upbeat – mostly it is despondent, lonely, desperate, longing. One message reads, “I constantly worry about people I love dying,” another, “I’m 33 and have never been in a relationship. I feel like a freak.” The messages, so personal and so universal, show just how alike we are, how unknowingly similar. It also offers us a possibility: if we allowed others to know our thoughts, perhaps we wouldn’t have to face our darkest burdens alone.
Donohoe and Parker have extended their original idea to include a website. If you want a unique chance to speak your innermost thoughts aloud via the anonymity of you keyboard, you can post them to the “The Waiting Wall” website. I did one, but have not seen it come up. Perhaps you will, and perhaps you will recognise me in it.