One of the great joys of the recent Thanksgiving holiday was being able to spend the day with one’s family members in person. Millions traveled long distances so they could see people they loved. Unlike a virtual visit over the computer, this was real.
It isn’t only holidays that can give us these experiences. In late August, I went to a county fair with my friend, her husband, and their four young children. I have always enjoyed fairs and that day, I realized why. A fair is a real experience. We were at an actual place, interacting with other people, seeing living animals, at an event celebrating the achievements of people who do the real work of farming.
We live in a world that is increasingly unreal: virtual school, virtual meetings, virtual festivals, virtual concerts. In addition, there are video games, computer games, digitally altered photographs, social media “friends” who are actually strangers, etc. This false reality has even influenced some Catholics to think that watching Mass online is the same as participating at Mass in person. As Catholics, we need to reclaim what is real in our daily lives and encourage others to do so. We can begin by living in real life ourselves every moment we can. Whenever possible, we need to choose a real experience over a virtual one. As an example, for the last five years, a Franciscan Friar and retired philosophy professor have taught philosophy classes to a group of my friends. We meet in person, engage in discussions, read chapters assigned in actual books, and gain knowledge. Friends of friends come, so new people join the class each year. While we could take a philosophy class online, we would miss the interactions with the friar and with each other.
In his book, The Day is Now Far Spent, Robert Cardinal Sarah wrote about the problems caused by dependence on the media, which can even harm our relationship with God. Speaking of priests and seminarians, in words that apply to lay Catholics as well, he said: “Television, the Internet, and many other communication technologies monopolize the time that is meant for God.” He also noted that these forms of communication cannot replace in person evangelization. “This is because evangelization is not a form of communication. It is primarily a witness.”
One of the main problems of living virtually is that it reduces actual human interaction, which is so necessary. We need to spend time in person with our family, friends, and Catholic community. It is also good to interact with people we don’t know, such as people who work in businesses; we might be able to offer them encouragement or be a witness to the Faith.
I was upset to learn that when nursing homes were closed to visitors last year, some facilities gave residents robotic cats and dogs as a substitute for seeing family and friends. These machines are designed to look and act in ways similar to real animals and some people with dementia have actually been deceived into thinking they were real. A robotic pet can never replace human contact, but it also cannot replace a living dog or cat, created by God, alive and real. Many have praised this invention as something positive, but it is wrong to offer someone a robot as a solution to his loneliness. Nursing home residents need visits from their family even more than health care. Residents also need nurses and aides who are available to talk with them as well as assist with their physical needs. If there are no staff members who have the time to spend visiting the residents, then there is no point in operating such a facility, as people need social and emotional support as well as physical and medical care.
As people spend more and more time in a virtual world, they become even more isolated and lonely, often without knowing why. For example, a teenager who spends most of his time at home playing video games instead of talking with his family or an adult who spends hours communicating with social media “friends” but seldom sees her real friends are living in a way that is contrary to what we are created for. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about the need to live in society and interact with others. “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” (1879)
While there are great Catholic websites, podcasts, radio and television programs, and some good movies, we still need to limit the amount of time we spend looking at computers, phones, and televisions. Our first priority has to be prayer, then spending time with our family and friends, fulfilling the responsibilities of our jobs and homes, and doing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Our time on earth is short; we can’t spend too much of it online. Some people may even choose to eliminate electronic media completely. In The Restoration of Christian Culture by John Senior (published in 1983, before the Internet) he recommended that readers “smash the television set” and “rid our homes of these mechanical and electronic devices and, positively, restore real, live, simple, homely Christian music and literature to the living room in their rightful place.” He advised families to buy a piano, sing songs together, and read classic books aloud. In our leisure time, we can do other real things such as write a letter, paint a picture, go for a walk, plant a garden, have a dinner party, or start a book discussion group.
Technology companies are working toward a virtual reality “metaverse.” However, Catholics don’t need virtual reality. We have the reality God gave us of His creation— real angels, real people, real animals, real trees, real lakes, and everything else in nature that He made. We have the reality of God’s Church where Jesus is truly Present in the Blessed Sacrament, and where Mary, the saints, the souls in purgatory, our brothers and sisters in our parish and throughout the world are in communion with one another. Heaven, purgatory, and hell are real. Therefore, we must stay in reality to be prepared to go to Heaven and be with God.
God created us to live in reality and we have to make every effort to do so. Prayer, attending Mass in a church, engaging in conversation with friends in person, visiting a resident in a nursing home, going to concerts and sporting events with other people, and shopping in a store instead of online are all ways of living a real life.