Peril: is virtual being there real pastoral care?

August 4th, 2014

So, what do you think? Is virtual communication real? And by that I mean, substantive and life-giving pastoral care? Are the Facebook posts, texts, tweets, and e-mails you send the type of care you would wish to receive if you were suffering a great loss or celebrating an accomplishment years in the making? Do you tell yourself, “It’s the best I can do because I am so busy”?

“We have long turned to technology to make us more efficient in work,” says Sherry Turkle in her provocative book "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other." “We want it to make us more efficient in our private lives. But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy.” Is “easy connection” what we aim for when we are given the opportunity to foster deep soul care for those who call us to serve them as their religious leaders? Where are the possibilities for individual conversations that move beyond “How are you?” and the obligatory “I am fine” response? Are people who are in crisis the only ones who receive our extended, personal, face-to-face conversations?

I clearly recall one of my earliest experiences of the absence of a person who was attempting to be present through words. It came in the form of a Christmas card with an embossed signature. The label on the front was also preprinted. That was it. Anyone could have sent that card to me. There was no personal sign of my friend. I had a hollow feeling, almost like that which I experience upon receiving the highly personalized letters that turn out to be advertisements!

The text serves as a coolant for emotion and easily inserts personal distance as technology becomes our preferred manner of connecting with others. Most of our communication is nonverbal, yet we are willing to give up looking into someone’s eyes, hearing the catch in the voice, watching the fluttering of their hands, seeing the downturned lips and the tapping foot, because virtual communication is convenient and quick. Consider what may be forever lost. Try saying “I love you” in as many ways as you can imagine. In the virtual world, we are in charge—we decide what and when we will communicate. No pressure of spontaneity complicates virtual life. Awkward questions hang unanswered on the internet!

“We are lonely but fearful of intimacy,” remarks Turkle in "Alone Together." She continues, “Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.”

The loneliness of many is significant. Judith Shulevitz addresses the subject in an essay titled “The Lethality of Loneliness: We Now Know How It Can Ravage Our Body and Brain,” and in it she references Frieda Fromm-Reichmann’s definition of loneliness, which “is the want of intimacy.” Shulevitz reports, “In a survey published by the AARP in 2010, slightly more than one out of three adults 45 and over reported being chronically lonely (meaning they’ve been lonely for a long time).” She answers the question “Who are the lonely?” with: “They’re the outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different.” The body and brain consequences of loneliness are startling: “A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”

Jesus sought out those on the outside: those who are lonely for all the reasons life has to shut us out from one another. I believe that people are choosing to gather in our congregations because they desire to be in deeper relationship with God and (for most) with other people. Are there opportunities for face-to-face conversations of depth in our communities? Are we promoting relationships that create strength within the church, which is the body of Christ on earth? Is there enough relational connection to cement the foundation for the loving and caring that folks do during the week in their personal relationships and in their work in the world? Do our congregations provide opportunities for people really to connect with one another?

Being physically present with people who are suffering is (must we risk a “has been” here?) what compassionate people do. It is the specific calling of religious leaders and people of faith to offer “tender, solicitous concern” to those in need of hope and healing. When disasters strike—individuals, families, communities, and nations—the religious communities and leaders are among the first to respond. Flesh, not mere words, appears on the scene to offer help.

During the Advent and Christmas seasons of the church, we meditate on the Word becoming flesh: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1 CEB); and “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14 CEB). The divine one is present in the sacraments with bread and grape juice or wine, water, and where the word is preached—here in meeting places where two or three are gathered—full of crumbs, droplets, splashing, coughing, cries, and laughter. In the shared murmuring of voices in prayer or by the joyous anthems sung in a room scented by candles and human bodies, the Holy is celebrated.

“Is virtual being there real pastoral care?” I asked the students at the divinity school. They answered, “Yes, but when used sparingly.” They agreed it was great for reaching out to the young, for checking folks’ activities and pictures on Facebook; however, when it comes to the serious or painful, conversations in real time as embodied human beings is crucial. I would add that if technology is all you have to use to reach out to someone, then use it if you must.

The Word became flesh in Jesus—the incarnate mystery. We, the body of Christ in the world, are challenged to live out the mystery of embodied relationships in all their messiness and to resist turning the flesh of real life into mere virtual worlds of fantasy games, careful impressions, precisely crafted texts and e-mails, posted pictures, videos, and virtual love. No matter how much love goes into the Xs and Os in a text, they are no substitute for kisses and hugs.

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