A reality of our world today and our relationships today is the amount of time we spend communicating verbally but non-verbally – all those emails, texts, direct messages, emojis, gifs, and other ways we share information with each other without actually being in each other’s physical space.
I love that with my close friends who live hundreds and even thousands of miles away, I can share some element of my mediocre daily life while I’m standing in line at Target (I came in for moisturizer and dog treats. I’m leaving with an entirely new décor for my living room. How’s your day?); notify a friend meeting me for lunch I’m running late or that the parking in our favorite ice cream place is, as usual, something akin to the fires of Mordor; and exchange pictures of our various loves on four legs – horses, pups, and kitties.
This communication matters. What can seem like unimportant information of the common moments of our lives reminds us of the uncommon beauty of relationships. The text about a new book we read or movie we saw that left us in ugly cry tears is worth sharing. The emoji that communicates a day of frustration and exhaustion reminds us we aren’t alone. The tweak of the Holy Spirit has often found me via any number of texts, emails, and messages, reminding me of the vast community of love that holds me, especially in the moments I feel most unsettled.
And this communication has its limits.
I have found, mostly through my own error, that these types of communication are fabulous ways to share information, but tragically inept ways to engage in serious and significant conversation.
For one, so much communication occurs non-verbally. When we are discussing significant topics and entering into the holy space of vulnerability and honesty, we share our selves and souls in what we say and, even more so, in what we don’t say. How we are physically present with ourselves and the other, how we respond to silence that is so valuable to these significant conversations, and how we are in conversational dialogue rather than short speeches we tap out via our phones all communicate care, distrust, love, and even hate.
Texts and emails are essentially short monologues. They are not conversations. I say something, then wait for someone to respond, usually readying my own response rather than taking time to listen (or, more accurately, read). Messages get delivered out of order, and how we interpret various texts and emails often has much to say about us. Too often, we are texting while we are doing any number of other activities. Again, if I’m sharing random notes of my day, that’s acceptable. If a friend is trying to talk about the grief she’s experiencing on the anniversary of her wife’s death, I don’t need to be texting her while I’m pouring a glass of iced tea while watching the timer on my microwave tick down.
I need to be present to her and to the holy words we share with each other.
We often fall short of this presence, whether we are in each other’s physical space or talking on the phone, but hearing another’s voice, seeing another’s pattern of breath or how they fiddle with a random piece of paper, provides the presence of the other and not the presence of a keyboard. In these places, we are incarnate with each other, not a phone or keyboard. We can take a moment; we can ask for clarification; we can see how the other responds. When I have only to look at a phone, I’m essentially locked in an echo chamber with my own ego.
I’ve also long thought, when I’ve engaged in difficult and challenging conversations via texts or emails, if I’m not trying less to find a resolution and more to control the narrative. A fearful part of vulnerable and honest conversations is the lack of control. I have to share my truth, and I am called to hear the truth of another. In a wonderful world, those coincide and all is right with the world.
In the world in which most of us live, those truths are often opposed, clouded in misunderstandings and our own baggage, and shaded by past wounds and fears. When I hear how my actions or inactions have hurt another, I am invited to delve deeply into my self. I am invited to confess my limits of love in thought, word, and deed. And I may be invited to have courage to share how another has hurt me, not in defense of my actions, but in hope of reconciliation of relationship. Monologues do not do this; dialogues do.
I’ve become more comfortable with sharing, when a conversation via text or email ventures into this particular holy space of communication, that this topic seems better discussed in person in incarnational dialogue. Some people agree; others don’t. That tells me much of what I need to know about how they understand dialogue. A good guideline is that texts and emails are wonderful for information, but not so helpful for communication.
Our human relationships matter, especially for those of us covenanted in faith communities. We are so fortunate to have many options to share the momentous and miniscule events in our lives to build, deepen, and strengthen the ties that bind us. May we value them all in their place as they build, piece by piece, moment by moment, the relationships with each other.