On a recent ride on the N train, I looked up from the book I was reading. Across the train car were about 8 people. Every one of them had a smart phone and was using them. One man had his eyes closed and was listening to music through his earphones; a woman was feverishly and quickly texting something that seemed very important; still others were fiddling around with their phones, reading, playing video games and sending emails. It struck me as a little ludicrous since none of them seemed to notice or even be aware of the persons on either side of them. All eight had their proverbial heads in the sky surrounded by clouds of concerns. They were physically present to each other but far from aware of the existence of anyone besides themselves and the person they were ‘connected to’.
As this mode of existence spreads, the question that I am proposing we look at is: are we truly connected with one another or are we connected to an instrument of technology that gives us the illusion of being present to one another? While we may be communicating with one another through the medium of the smart phone or the tablet or the computer, is that really being connected with someone? By connection I mean not just in communication but in communion with the essence of another human being.
When two people are truly and deeply present and connected with one another, they are joined on a number of different levels. Much is communicated by the body even before the word is spoken. There is an ‘exclusivity’ about true presence. A being present in a special way to a friend or a spouse or a child that has a myriad of levels of communication is that form that I am calling a ‘communion’ with someone. For instance, a Dad can play with his son long distance wise by playing with him on one of the games available on a smart phone. They are both enjoying each other’s play and there is a level of communication undeniably. But how much richer is that play when father and son are playing touch football together? It goes from one limited level of communication to a deeper and multi-level play that inhabits the heart and, dare I say, the souls of the players.
Sometimes you see a family at table not really present to one another. Each is immersed in his or her smart phone and busily communicating with someone else who is physically distant to them.
There are even some adults that have admitted to me that they wonder if their children, brought up in the tech age, can actually manage a true conversation: speaking of ideas, listening to the other, responding both mentally and emotionally, coming up with certain resulting conclusions (if only the satisfaction of growing in an awareness of the other as other) and just growing as a human being. While perhaps this might be possible on a written level through emails and texts, is that not just an extension and an enlargement of the ‘letter writing’ of our snail mail past? And even there, the slow, reasoned, cumulative impact of a carefully written and considered letter, may contrast with the virtually immediate impact of the email and even more with the text or Twitter.
It is not my goal in these reflections to denigrate the tremendous advances and advantages of the computer age but to point out that there have been loses as well, loses that can spell trouble in interpersonal relationships and especially in the way we communicate with God.
For the encounter with God, in a sense, has no distance in it. It is not that we speak to God in prayer and God gets this in some heavenly place as though God is sitting at a computer waiting for our “heaven-mails”! He is present to us immediately and our prayer is called a conversation with Him. So that this new mode of communication (all that we mean by the computer or modern technology) is not the way God is present to us. He is present to us as one person is present to another in a room together. It is real and not virtual, immediate and not mediated, direct and not channeled. To try to make our communication with God fit the modern paradigm is to completely misunderstand the way God acts in the world and in our lives.