The Virtual Should Never Be a Substitute for the Actual

mercy, garden

Yesterday our family went to a friend’s house for the afternoon. Since the weather was pleasant, we went for a hike on the surrounding farmland adjacent to her property. As we cut through the driveway of the farm, our kids waved to the neighbor in the truck, who was loading up the horses. After we finished the hike, we had some homemade bread and jam and tea at the table and talked. It was a nice afternoon. I know our friend attends the local SSPX chapel nearby, but I don’t really bring it up. It’s a somewhat ancillary fact that is secondary to our localized friendship and our common fight in the spiritual and culture war we are presently engaged in today as Catholics.

We also have some close friends who live about the same distance away. They have served as mentors for my wife and I early in our marriage and have encouraged us in our journey towards homeschooling. They are models of Christian charity and attend a non-denominational Christian church in their area; we know many people in that community as well. When we get together for bonfires in their backyard, or sit on the porch while our kids play, our theological differences in belief don’t come up that often, and if they do, they are tempered by a healthy mutual respect.

With our neighbors in our actual neighborhood we have a similar good relationship. Our neighbors across the street are fallen-away Catholics, but they are people with hearts of gold. The daughter babysits for us, and her dad, who is a carpenter, has offered to help me with various house projects. Likewise, we have a good relationship with our next door neighbors as well, and while they are Catholic, our discussions revolve more around the local issues than the big picture.

Loss of Community

Why do I write about our neighbors and friends? What does it have to do with anything? Before the Internet and social media existed, this was the essence of community in the here-and-now. In the online world of today, we have to distinguish between those who would be considered IRL friends (“in real life”) and the on-line communities we may form with people we have never met in “real life.” Those from this latter group may be people we interact with on a weekly or even a daily basis. We might know where they stand on theological or political issues but know nothing about their children, the name of the church they attend, or even where they live geographically.

There is good reason for that in many circumstances, or course – the Internet can be a cancerous, hostile place where strangers and trolls may leverage your personal information against you, steal your identity, and just act strangely overall. And so we are careful: we generally open up and engage only with those who share our political or theological views. I have found online groups to be a supportive kind of “community well” around which people gather, metaphorically, for the exchange of ideas and healthy discussion as well as support for living our faith in the world today. Sometimes discussion devolves into a kind of divisive hardline partisanship with distinct personalities and voices airing one side of an issue or the other. Admittedly, my experience is limited to Facebook, and my settings are “friends only.” I typically don’t engage on public platforms like Twitter due to its vitriolic and combative nature. That reaffirms by basic point: the virtual world is not the actual world of friends and neighbors.

The Real Meaning of “Friend”

It is easy to brand people as “leftists” or “right-wingers” in such environments, but I’ve found my IRL interactions to be much more nuanced with those of different beliefs. When you live next to someone, or with someone, or close to someone, it necessitates a healthy respect and a cognizance of the physical proximity in which we live. If we start arguing over incidental matters to the point of a blow-up, it’s not like we can easily “unfriend” them and move away. Why would we want to do something so drastic because of a simple disagreement?

In Internet Land, however, this is a common occurrence. “Friends” are not necessarily neighbors, and so we block, unfriend, and/or easily ignore people based on a slight or some difference of opinion on matters or issues. There is little personal investment from the start, and so we lose little in cutting someone loose. Sometimes there is good reason for this: if someone affects your peace or is obnoxious, they should not be tolerated. But sometimes I wonder if these kinds of factions would happen “in real life” the way they occur online if we were neighbors living in proximity.

Internet Persona vs. Real Person

When my wife and I met on a Catholic dating site, we exchanged a few emails but met in person very soon afterward. We both were of the mind that it is too easy to “hide” who one is behind an internet persona. Since dating and marriage occurs “in real life,” it would just be wasted time to communicate via chat and email if it were to delay really getting to know one another, part and parcel with the nuances that come with actual, in-the-flesh human interaction.

I have met friends online via social media who I wished lived closer, as I know we would get along great as friends “IRL”. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a kind of “internet sandbox” to meet other people and engage on various issues and topics, but I like to temper it with those real life interactions – including with those who are not necessarily the same as me in their religious or political views – that teach us how to be three-dimensional human beings. Sometimes people get comfortable behind a keyboard but may have anxiety about such real life interactions, and so a kind of cancerous bravado can grow unchecked behind the safety of a screen.

Faith Demands Direct Interaction

There is a reason we do not have the sacrament of Confession by way of telephone or Skype. There is also a reason we do not tune in to Mass every Sunday remotely from the comfort of our TVs at home. There is a reason why we are called to experience the Eucharist directly, in its physical elements, to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Psalm 34:8). There is a reason we are called to practice the works of mercy, not just by cutting a check, but by interacting with the poor and those in need – by feeding, giving drink, clothing, and visiting in-the-flesh as called for in Matthew 25. “As long as you did it for one of these least of my brethren, you did it for me.”

I have found a lot of good in my online interactions via social media, but ultimately there is no substitute for the incarnate place of physical presence and friendships. The divisiveness and social altercations seem to be lessened when you know you are living among people as neighbors.

Whereas the virtual world provides very shallow roots to human relationships, being a rooted neighbor thrives on respect for boundaries as well as charity. We are called to love in real life, and to the extent that social media can foster that charity and connection, I think it is a good thing. Walking among the horse dung, the crunch of the autumn leaves, the hot fragrant tea and the barking of the dogs yesterday made me realize that the virtual should never be a substitute for the actual but simply one tool among others we use to build the foundation of charity in our lives.

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