Monday, February 8, 2010

The Pope's Call to the Net

“Thanks to the new communications media, the Lord can walk the streets of our cities and, stopping before the threshold of our homes and our hearts, say once more:"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me" (Rev 3:20).”

I can think of all sorts of reasons to reject the proposal as phrased by the Pope, though I agree there may be room and reason to use the technology to supplement to other forms of communication. Again the quote: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me." (Rev 3:20). This is a call and a response, a question with an answer. The failure of electronic media as a major avenue of communication is precisely the loss of our breaking bread together - the tendency of so many to rely on this impersonal media without really engaging in communication. It is not a problem inherent with the media itself so much as it is the power of the media to lure us to laziness, to talk but never listen, to preach but allow for no questions.

“The problem with the illusion that it has been accomplished.” George Bernard Shaw.
If you post the most enlightening thing, what does that do? You have only said what you wanted to say but if no one reads, what does it matter? Do you talk to hear yourself talk? Some do, and it seems increasingly that the electronic media encourages this sort of "talking." But really do I or you or anyone else really need to know anything that can be tweeted in 140 characters or less? a message whose information can only be relayed by replacing syllables with numbers? Ok, so we're increasingly spread out and we're not going to visit over a beer or lunch, at a museum or poetry reading, or even at a movie. But perhaps you go and hear the poet and post about that experience. Why did you post? Was it to share your experience? Why would you want to share, to take the time to collect your thoughts, impressions, feelings and find the words to write even a sentence? Maybe you even found a link and included that in your post. What's the motivation? Did you share anything if no one read any of it? How about you post about different events, curiosities, revelations (real or imagined), books, movies, music and whatever else strikes you as worthy -- posting stuff and no one ever reads it, or if they do they never say a thing, and therefore you don't know if anyone read a thing you said. Lots of people I think are fine with this; there is an option on facebook where you can post what you want and preclude any comments or even "likes."

But what of communication?
We are healed of a suffering only by expressing it to the full.” Marcel Proust. We all of us have suffering in need of healing, some viewed as relatively minor and other that is deeply rooted, recalcitrant, slower to heal perhaps in part to the discomforts (ours and theirs) of such expression.

Self-expression must pass into communication for its fulfillment.” Pearl S. Buck. Perhaps (it seems to me) fulfillment of self-expression of the suffering necessary to heal is in fact the healing; the acknowledgment that we are not the only ones but are part of a community accepting us regardless of the wounds we hold and hide as we work our way toward expression and healing.

Communication to me has always signified some sort of back and forth, an exchange, a talking and a listening. I do get frustrated at the increasingly impersonal use of information exchange in lieu of communication. I want to be heard (read) as much as (or maybe more than) anyone (though I believe everyone has need to be heard and to listen). Communication is how we build community, how we know that we belong to a community. The danger of the "new" (or any) media is that it be employed in lieu of actual communication (or dialogue).

Generally speaking, the first nonviolent act is not fasting, but dialogue. The other side, the adversary, is recognized as a person, he is taken out of his anonymity and exists in his own right, for what he really is, a person. To engage someone in dialogue is to recognize him, have faith in him." Hildegard Goos-Mayr.

I guess it all depends on the use made of a media, whether it is unilateral or actually a means, an invitation, to a dialogue. If the first, then it is a dangerous and flimsy substitute for anything meaningful or real and we are in fact alone -- without community. "The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.... A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.” Rachel Naomi Remen.

How does one know that he is heard if no one makes any reply? Can we live beyond and apart from all community? When the Pope speaks of Jesus coming to my door and we sit and share a meal, is that not a vision of community? “God's loving care for all people in Christ must be expressed in the digital world not simply as an artifact from the past, or a learned theory, but as something concrete, present and engaging. Our pastoral presence in that world must thus serve to show our contemporaries, especially the many people in our day who experience uncertainty and confusion, "that God is near; that in Christ we all belong to one another" (Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2009). I read this as an acknowledgement that the purpose, the reason, for communication is the building, growing and strengthening of community. Yet in his address Pope Benedict speaks only of the talking, not of the listening that talking presumes nor how the building of community will be accomplished through use of social media like facebook and twitter.
If you were all alone in the universe with no one to talk to, no one with which to share the beauty of the stars, to laugh with, to touch, what would be your purpose in life? It is other life, it is love, which gives your life meaning. This is harmony. We must discover the joy of each other, the joy of challenge, the joy of growth.” Mitsugi Saotome.

Other than the sharing of certain important information necessary for survival why do we communicate? Why so many means of communication if its sole purpose is to ensure physical survival? Once you have a piece of bread and cup of water you would have no need for any other human interaction, save perhaps for a mate but even that can be accomplished without community and without much in the way of communication. In fact there are still many societies where the mating is arranged and done with little or no dialogue as the girls are distributed to those males with the necessary qualifications -- namely a house, a goat or some other payment, referred to as a "dowry" in more "genteel" circles. In truth we do the same thing here in this civilized, advanced democracy we call America -- sometimes the men give the girls and sometimes the girls just trade themselves. So even this aspect of survival needs no real communication. Actually, I'd think the more communication, i.e., talking and being heard, acknowledging and recognizing the other, the less likely this way of pairing or being paired.

No, I think there must be something else underlying the human need to not only talk but to also be heard, acknowledged, recognized, touched and seen. This is not my idea -- I am not so smart. But I think Cicero had it when he said “We were born to unite with our fellow men, and to join in community with the human race.” Nor is it just an old idea, it persists through time. “I am a part of all that I have met.” Alfred Tennyson.

Is not there a major part of all religious / spiritual life that stems from the yearning to be a part of, not apart from? Corny I know, and perhaps unattainable. Yet there is something in this expression that, were a poll taken, I'd guess a majority would identify with: “We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been — a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.” Starhawk.

Who doesn't want free? Even God recognized the need of men for free when free will was given so we could make a mess of things and then try to better the world and ourselves. There is no divorcing communication and community -- not linguistically or otherwise.

We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other's arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance,
And the larger circle of all creatures,
Passing in and out of life,
Who move also in a dance,
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments
Wendell Berry

No, I’m not much of a thinker. I’m poor with words, not too articulate over here. I write and yes I want read, I want dialogue, I want acknowledged and recognized as an I who is, who is being, who is here. But more, I want to know the answers to questions that have no answers other than as can perhaps be found a fragment at a time sifting through the back and forth of countless dialogues. I think each of us has a religious life, a spiritual being, and that this being, this life seeks just such a community where we are read, heard, talked to, answered, challenged and allowed to be even by those who know we know nothing of significance.

As Pope Benedict says, the media can bring us into contact with a great many people--believers and non-believers alike. But there are countless other means and ways of contact -- a slap across the face, a blow to the head, a rape, all can communicate anger. All these contacts send a message albeit without words, without any
"communication" as the word is commonly understood. The monk walking with his bowl one early hazy, humid morning in Bangkok, whose presence I feel, who averts his gaze - we had contact too though I was so afraid of being wrong that I made no offering -- we had contact and even communication, though briefly, through the eyes. The goal, the end, can't be mere "contact.” I realize this is somewhat hyperbolic but a narrow statement suggesting mere contact, any more than only talking (posting) is good for anything strikes me as similarly simple.
So go Pope go, and use that media, but don't forget to listen every once in a while or else no one will know that any one else is.

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