We live in an age of incredible connectivity. The world is more connected than at any other point in history. We can communicate with people around the world at lightning speed. Social media platforms, online news, email, text messaging, and all other forms of electronic communication allow us to keep up with what is going on in the world and with our friends and family in ways previous generations could not fathom. And yet, with all of this connectivity, people are lonelier than ever before.
When someone takes their own life the automatic response is that it was depression or mental illness. Yes, there are a lot times this is the case, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is not always the case. This is a general response we give in the face of the tragedy of suicide that doesn’t require any serious introspection or examination of what is going on in our culture. I say this as someone who has had two serious bouts with clinical depression, once from being a 9/11 relief worker and the other from hormone issues after I gave birth to my daughter.
Our culture is lonely. People crave deeper connectivity, but that can’t be found staring at a cell phone or computer screen. I am always saddened when I look around at a restaurant and see the vast majority of the people present are on their cell phones staring at screens while they ignore the person or people sitting across from them. What this says is that there is something “better” in the virtual world than the embodied spirit sitting with them in person.
I’d argue that we prefer the virtual world because it’s easier. It doesn’t place expectations upon us. The people on the other end of our virtual communications are real people to be sure, but we don’t have to look into their eyes while we talk to them online. We don’t have to be present to them and give of ourselves other than a passing “Like” or quick comment. Even discourse online is a way to espouse our ideas without much fear or vulnerability. We are the lord and masters of our virtual world.
The online world also allows us to block out the existential angst we all face in this life because of the reality of death. Our culture is terrified of being alone. People cannot even walk down the street without headphones in because they must deaden that still small voice. This is detrimental in the spiritual life because stillness, silence, and time alone with God are essential for growing in holiness. This cannot be accomplished with computer, cell phone, or television screens constantly drawing us away from Him. We also cannot truly connect with the people around us if we are entranced by the virtual world somewhere out there, while ignoring the person right in front of us.
I’ve craved deep relationships with people for as long as I can remember. I’m not content with the superficial. Last week I wrote about the riches of holy friendship and the depth that can arise in those relationships grounded in communion with God. I’m not as interested in relationships that are primarily through a computer screen. They often make us even more lonely because we reach out to people, but we are never satisfied because real relationships require something that the Internet can never give us: presence.
Regardless of how our culture tells us that we are meant to go it alone and pave our own path, this understanding runs counter to our human nature. We are not islands that are isolated from one another. We are united by the very nature we all share and we are connected at the deepest levels of reality. If we were not connected through the mystery of solidarity, Christ would not have been able to take on human flesh and redeem mankind. It is because we are united to one another that He is able to redeem us and it is how we are all on the same path together. The Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine states:
Solidarity highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals, and peoples towards an ever committed unity.
The Church rightly understands our social nature and calls us to move outside of ourselves towards other human beings and God. This is why solidarity is not only an essential aspect of Catholic Social Teaching, it is a theological principle that flows throughout the Mystical Body and is tied to the mystery of our redemption. Father W. Norris Clarke, S.J. provides a useful definition of human being in his book Person and Being:
A human being is by nature a finite embodied spirit, in search of the Infinite, in social solidarity with its fellow human beings, on an historical journey through this material cosmos towards its final trans-worldly goal.
This can easily be understood in G. K. Chesterton’s pithy observation: “We are all in this boat and we are all seasick.”
The problem with an overemphasis on digital forms of communication is that it separates us from true solidarity and being. We are not bodily present to the person on the other end of the screen. We are both body and soul, so our bodily presence matters in our communication and in our relationships. We may still care for our virtual friends and even love them, but the relationship will inherently lack depth. We are not vulnerable before a computer screen. We do not open ourselves up fully in love and self-giving in a text message. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. I text more than I should. Relationships require a give and take. They require an openness to being hurt, rejected, and let down by the other person and we in turn can do the same thing to the other person. Relationships at their heart require self-emptying love and necessitate that we work to overcome our inclination towards selfishness. Online communication is safe in that our hurts don’t run as deep and we can keep people at a comfortable distance. It’s largely on our own terms.
A few months ago, I had a spiritual experience that I am still processing and that is still coming to fruition in the depths of my soul. I’m not going to go into detail about it at this point in time, but I did learn something about the interconnectedness of human beings through this experience. People are hungry for love. We need genuine friendships and strong, loving relationships with our families. We also need to acknowledge and see how connected we are to every single person on this planet and strive to connect with people we encounter each day. People want to be seen by others and by God. We need one another to reach our ultimate end: heaven.
How do we learn to truly see people?
Something I have done for as long as I can remember is make very direct eye contact with people. Not as much when I am the one doing the talking, because I too am a work in progress and I am aware that the right kind of person would be able to see things about me that I may be afraid for them to see in my eyes or that I am not ready to share. Direct eye contact requires vulnerability. I know this because I can see things in people’s eyes that they may not know I can see. I know this trait of mine unnerves some people. It doesn’t matter if I am talking one-on-one with someone, sitting in a lecture, in Mass, or at an event. I am a much more attentive listener when I keep my eyes fixed on the speaker. I also do it so that people know they have my full attention and because I genuinely want to connect with people at a deeper level.
I have a friend who does the same thing quite a bit of the time. He’s one of the only other people I know right now who does it. I’ve learned something about myself by watching him with other people, though. In focusing on direct eye contact, we are both able to be more fully present to the person in front of us. And, we are more able to be Christ to the person in front of us and to see Christ in the other person. We can’t truly see or understand people if we don’t look into their eyes and make a focused effort to be fully present to them. It’s also a hallmark trait of holy people. I am not claiming to be holy, someday by God’s grace, but I understand that holy people know how to be fully present to others. All of this I have been contemplating for a while now based on these observations and some of my own experiences, one of which happened the other night.
I took my daughter out for frozen yogurt for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. While we were at the shop, the teenage girl behind the counter started talking to me. Judging by her accent, she was from Australia or New Zealand. (Pardon me for not being able to distinguish the difference.) Rather than rush off like I normally would with a friendly good-bye, I stood there and looked right into her eyes. I entered completely into that moment and gave her my full attention. I was fully present.
At first her eye contact was sporadic as she talked. She began telling me stories about working in the frozen yogurt shop. I’d never thought about what it is like to work in such a place. As I gave her my full attention, something interesting began to happen. She started to look right back at me and her enthusiasm for the conversation grew. I stood there listening to her and asking the occasion question for about ten minutes, even as my frozen yogurt melted in the cup in my hand. While this transpired, I was able to more fully see her and she in turn could see me. I gave of myself in that moment and she did the same thing. Two complete strangers, two decades apart in age, were able to have a thoroughly human moment and more than anything I could sense Christ’s presence with us. Eventually another customer arrived and I took my leave to eat my frozen yogurt at a nearby table with my daughter.
This is not the type of encounter that can occur online. Even though I have great affection for my friends in social media or friends I routinely text, I cannot possibly connect with people at a more significant level in this way. I need to be able to look into their eyes, see their body language, hear their voice, and actively engage with them. This is what is missing in our culture. We don’t see each other because we aren’t present to one another. This lack of presence is creating a culture of loneliness and isolation. We are made to be in communion with one another in charity. We cannot fully be Christ to the world from behind a keyboard, and I say this as a writer.
I want to be able to see people as Christ sees them, and as Catholics, this should be our great desire in living out the principle of solidarity. We can’t do this if we are too busy ignoring the people in front of us, whether it be our own families, friends, co-workers, the lady at the grocery store, our next door neighbor, etc. We can’t evangelize effectively if we are not working to connect with others at a deeply human level. We must meet people where they are in their actual lives. People can see Christ in us by our holy lives and by the joy that radiates out of us. Being present to others requires courage, charity, patience, vulnerability, and discipline. Let’s work to enter into greater communion with the people around us and to be truly present to them in love, in so doing, many lonely souls will be brought to Christ.