In 2020 can we agree to stop with the dualism: virtual/in real life.
As I write this the world is in the midst of pandemic, and my community has asked that everyone who can stay home and physically isolate themselves do so, for the protection of those who are most at risk from this disease. (And which disease it is doesn’t even much matter, there will be another.)
As a result the religious communities in my area have closed their physical facilities. The grace with which they are handling that situation varies, shall we say. (Hat tip to my Jewish and Muslim colleagues who were first to close for the sake of others.) Some in my own religious tradition have gone so far as to declare they will never close their physical building and never “cancel” worship.
What is Real, Really?
The ironic thing about this is none of us have cancelled our worship services, with my local synagogue and Muslim center we have moved our worship online, and into people’s homes. Maybe its a generation gap, or a cultural gap, but there is a fixed feeling that online is not real and that only physical gatherings are real.
This isn’t new. As the internet grew and those of us who do our spiritual leadership work there began to talk about that work the question invariably became: yes but you’re meeting people online so they’ll come to church, right? And I would smile (tiredly) and say: no I am meeting people where they are, because the Divine is already there with them. And the confused blinks began and the stammering and invariably someone would splutter: but that’s not real!
Our language hasn’t helped. We’ve talked about IRL (In Real Life) and the internet got called “virtual” (def: almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition) early on. And all this encouraged us to think about what happened online as not quite real.
Where Do You Stop?
Of course the idea that what happens online isn’t real fails because all the people involved are just as real as they are in the physical world. And I don’t want to hear the argument about how you can portray yourself as anyone online, because plenty of people do that offline as well, living their whole lives behind masks for one reason or another, never showing the world their true self.
You don’t stop being real because you’ve sat down at your computer and logged onto Facebook, or Youtube, or an online game. And the other people behind those avatars, and comments are just as real as you, every last one of them. (Well except for the bots, but that is another matter entirely.)
My community (and many others of all religious traditions) will meet online this weekend for our worship. We will be just as real sitting in our living rooms with our coffee mugs, gathered around our glowing computer screens. The words we read will be just as sacred. Perhaps more so, because we have made the choice to disrupt our own lives to protect the lives of others. And this is the highest calling of all people. This is what mature humans do, we care for our fellow humans, especially those we have never met (and never will) and do not know.
Because people we cannot see are real. People we will never hug, or hold hands with, or break bread with. Real.
You are real beloved, and the Divine would sell all that she has to pay the price to buy you. And every single human being too. (Even the ones I don’t like, she’s annoying like that.) (Matthew 13:45–13:46)
Real is Real
So if you find yourself isolated, needing (for any reason or in any time) to be physically distant from people you love: do not despair.
Many of my best friends have never once been in the same room as me, or I them. You see over twenty years ago (yes I am trying to make them feel old) we all stumbled on each other in one of those early “message boards,” this one was for people who were horse obsessed (an incurable disease we suffer with gladly). And for whatever reason we clicked, this group (of mostly women), and we stuck together.
The actual technology we used to connect changed (various message board systems, chat systems, and currently a Facebook group that no, you can’t join) but the relationships didn’t, because the people were just as real, however we connected.
When I moved across the country and was without a horse it was one of those women who loaned me her sweet boy for pony cuddles. When I moved across the country again it was one of those women who helped me find a home and who gave my mare a safe place to land while I found her a home.
When that horse (my soul mate and best friend) died suddenly my first thought in the midst of my sobs was that I needed those women, we had after all already buried so many beloved friends (four legged and two) together. And they carried me through that as we’d carried each other so many times before.
There is nothing virtual about that community, despite the fact that it lives mostly online (but boy is it fun when we get to fest together in the physical world.) And if they’re reading this, they know who they are.
Real is real.
Spiritual Beings in a Digital World
It strikes me as a little funny that some of the most stubborn people about considering the internet “not real” are religious folks, you know those of us who believe in things like souls. Soul: something we cannot see or touch but that we are yet convinced is absolutely real.
Perhaps we can take on a new spiritual practice: to treat those we meet online as heartbreakingly real. The trolls, hurting so badly they can do nothing but lash out. The vaguebookers, so afraid of showing their real selves they, well, vaguebook (posting vague or passive aggressive status updates to a social media site). The Instagram stars with their oh so perfect lives, and all the pressure and burnout that brings. The regular folks who mean well and get dumped on by people who treat them as pixels. The ill or disabled whose best outlet to the world is one so many consider less than.
All of them and more. And you.
Can you be as mindful online as you are off?
Can you lift into the Divine light all those hurts and fears that hurtle past your eyes (said or unsaid) daily?
Can you spend time, intentionally with people you love and adore, right there in chat box?
Can you stop and listen to a symphony streaming their concert in front of an empty hall is if you were in those seats, with all the attention and stillness you would have there?
Can you just be?
You are real. I am real. This world we have created here in the diaphanous reality of pixels and transistors is real.
The Divine is here too, look for her.