LEARNING TO LOVE AT A DISTANCE
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
There’s never been a time when I haven’t loved people living far from me. There are pictures in my parents’ photo album of me carrying around the picture of my cousin Carly, only two years older than I am, but for whom I have always had an enormous fondness, despite only seeing each other once or twice a year. I struggled at times in my adolescence with finding close local friends, and some of my deepest friendships in my teenage years were friends from camp, who I would keep in touch with throughout the year via AOL instant messenger, or emails, or letters. I ended up marrying one of those friends.
When I was in my masters program, I started dating that friend. I was in Virginia, and he was in New Jersey, and so we were learning not just to love but to be in love at a distance. It was not easy. One day, when I was feeling sad about this struggle with distance I was talking about it with an elderly couple from my church. They had married just after WWII, and he was posted to France to help with the reconstruction. Mrs. Brown told me, “he would send a telegram letting me know when he would call on the phone, and then we would save up for the phone calls, because a call across the Atlantic cost ten dollars a minute.” It put my unlimited video chat with my boyfriend in a very new light.
In the last few years there have been a lot of studies about the ways in which as a culture we are more technologically connected than ever before, but feel more isolated. There are many connections between an overuse of social media and mental health difficulties, and the filtered, framed, and carefully photographed lives of others can lead to an unhealthy spiral of comparison and self-critique. I know these issues. I read these studies. I’ve had my fair share of struggles via my use of the internet. But I’ve grown tired of the tinge of self-righteousness which some people take in their eschewing of social media or digital technology. It’s popular to refer to digital connection as “a necessary evil” or to sigh about it as though we’d all really be better off without it like things were in the good old days when people were all together and connected in person. I worry about the way these refrains get passed around in Christian circles, especially— as if whole sections of our scriptures weren’t written because Christians were in seperate places, writing letters to each other. As if the only way to be in community were to be in a single room together.
Part of my frustration comes from the very real and rich connections I’ve made and maintained through digital means. My relationship to my husband is clearly a central example. We wrote each other hundreds of letters in the three years we dated, and yes, we talked on the phone and visited each other, but the bulk of our connection was through video chat, through countless emails, through type-chat. There are people I knew in undergrad as acquaintances with whom I became friends only after we no longer lived on the same campus. I treasure the times I’ve have with my nieces and nephew in person, but some of our favorite interactions have been doing puppet shows for each other over skype, or even, with my oldest niece, helping her learn to read by writing words on sheets of paper in the Netherlands, and holding them up to my webcam for her to read in NY. When I was sad and lonely missing a community of readers I started making youtube videos linking into a very welcoming community of people who make videos about books online, and suddenly through those videos I was having real conversations again with people who shared my interests.
Some of the people whose online influence I hope to emulate are easy to learn about through their TED Talks. One is Ze Frank, who I didn’t follow back when he was first making media, but since then, I have come to admire his impact on the internet enormously. In this TED Talk he shares about creating not just real connections but community via the internet. The TED talk is old (references to 9/11, and to the 2004 election as not so distant news) but the themes are still fresh today, the desire for true emotional connection with people: “to feel and be felt.” Another is John Green, (who you may know as the YA novelist, or the CrashCourse host) who talks about the internet as a place for communities of learning in his TED Talk. In particular I love that he talks about the internet as being a place where things come into being. It is full of places not found, because not looked for, and he hopes that we can all spread our maps wider, include more of the world which exists in this strange place of digital connection. Amanda Palmer is another name I bring into this conversation not because I love her art (it is decidedly not my kind of music) but because I find her ideas extremely compelling. I also teach her TED Talk pretty frequently, as she elicits strong reactions with her controversial choices, but she makes real, incredibly intimate connections with her audience nearly always in spaces which are dismissed as insignificant or unimportant: the sidewalk, Twitter, the kitchen of family living in the US without legal documentation. I feel like many online spaces get thought of as insignificant, but one of the things I’ve taken away from each of these people is that it is possible to come to spaces (like Facebook, or Youtube, or clunky learning management systems!) which are thought of as commercial or shallow or trivial or just plain bad and transform them into places of real connection and love.
Since we’ve been practicing social distancing here in MN, I’ve been posting questions (meant to foster community) daily to my Facebook page. It’s a small thing. But it’s been an effort I’ve put into transforming one space I have access to into a place where we can have a little bit of genuine conversation, and I’ve been amazed at the result. I’ve asked questions about people’s fears, their struggles, their daily routines, about crying, and people from every part of my life have joined into these conversations. (Here’s my list, in case you’d like to scroll through them.) I’ve had thousands of responses, frequently several dozen responses to a single post. I firmly believe that our call as Christians to “faithful presence” doesn’t end when we get online, or that the only route to faithful presence is to sign out of the digital world, but that the online spaces we inhabit are also places where God can use us to transform the world for the better.
So my hope for everyone feeling disconnected in the viral connections of our world (especially now, during this pandemic) is to look to the people who are already loving from a distance well. Not sure how to connect best with your loved ones long distance? Starting with reaching out by text or asking if someone would like to talk on the phone or via a video chat is always good. I’m also a huge fan of the long rambly email, (the less classy cousin to the handwritten letter). Sometimes it’s really empowering to articulate your experience in writing. If you’re struggling with ideas of what to do when you’re trying to maintain an important connection, I’d encourage you to check out websites designed for people dating long distance—there are a lot of people who have been coming up with solutions to these problems for a long time. Struggling to have real and open conversations with your friends or family when you do reach out? The NY Times has a list of questions to promote intimacy—they’re designed to help people fall in love, but they’ll deepen a friendship too. We may need to wait on the prolonged eye contact, but there’s an intimacy to hearing each others’ voices too.
As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors, and that call is made immense by redefining our neighbors as the people to whom we are kind. Not just the people we wave at as we go on our socially distanced walks. Not just the people in the next house over. Through the possibilities of digital communication our opportunities for kindness grow exponentially. I hope, in this crisis, as always, to use these opportunities well.