This past week, my dad lost his best friend. Jim was 20 years his senior and could technically have been his father – my grandfather – but instead of assuming a parent/child interaction, a 23 year streak of baseball games, happy hours, cigars, Christmas toasts, rounds of golf and countless, countless political conversations around the firepit in the backyard ensued between two unlikely men’s men, guys who could each have run a small country on their own, and yet, still made time and recognized the value – in the most natural and unscripted manner – in cultivating a relationship spanning decades.
They didn’t do programs together. They didn’t meet for any kind of men’s group, nor would they ever have attended had they been invited. Some people, particularly in generations preceding my own, are not “program people,” and that’s just fine.
In fact? It might even be more fine, more natural.
Coming of age in the digital revolution, I observed the bizarre migration of the bulk of my relationships from the real world to the virtual world, and then, more recently, back again. By “back again” I don’t mean that I’ve jettisoned online finds, just that as the shine has worn off for all of us, I’ve started (and it’s really fits and starts in this season) to push myself to be more intentional about actual face time. Not the app. And I’ve observed a lot of other people doing it, too.
It’s a lonely world we’re living in. For all the blessings of technology and cheap energy, the cost ends up being perilously high in terms of overall social connectedness and health. We drive everywhere, spending literal hours “alone together” stuck on the freeway. It has become so easy to be absorbed in a screen at all times. So much less effort to pick up my phone and snap a video of what I’m currently doing and shoot it out to an audience of a thousand “friends” than use it to call one specific friend and connect with, directly. The connection costs something. Maybe I’m too tired. Maybe I’m not really looking for connection, but to scratch the itch of boredom. Maybe it’s too hard to sit with silence, too intimidating to cross the street and knock on the neighbor’s door.
We are a culture dying for a little love. Literally, figuratively, emotionally and spiritually.
Instead of meaningful, sacramental sex, we have porn. Instead of family meals, we have fast food and a screen for every nose to press against. Instead of a vibrant, dynamic parish where one can belong, be known, and be in relationship with others, we have a cold, disconnected group of strangers standing in line to receive their Sacraments, assembly line style, and filing out like a frantic fire drill before the closing hymn is announced, let alone sung.
We are so lonely. We have lost the ability to connect with one another. We say we’re more connected than ever, yet an article about people making eye contact or performing some basic act of human decency in public brings actual tears to our eyes when someone shares it on social media. My God, we think, can you imagine if everyone reacted with such kindness/bravery/compassion/honesty?
Well, what if we did?
What if instead of spending literally hours with our tiny screens opened in our laps, collecting comments and likes and mindlessly scrolling through other people’s daily lives (this is not an anti social media manifesto, said the blogger. Just, we do really have a problem here), we spend an hour or two every day drinking a beer with our next door neighbors. Playing soccer in the backyard with our kids. Invited our coworker to grab dinner as we each exit our soulless work stations for the night, each headed home to dark studio apartments. What if we took the moments at the stoplights to pray a silent Hail Mary for the person in the car next to us, asking the Lord to work in their hearts and meet whatever profound need they are currently struggling with?
Because we all are. We are all in this together, and we are all of us broken, struggling, and in need of saving.
When I think of my dad and the friendship he’ll lay to rest later this week, I think of it as being sacramental in a way that means incarnate. That it was real, that it was the product of years of interaction and communication and recreation and real fellowship.
They didn’t share all their beliefs, but they shared their lives together.
That is what we are called to do. To be in communion with one another. To love our neighbor. Not only the neighbor who looks, acts, thinks, and believes exactly as we do. But the neighbor who is vibrantly, unmistakably different. And who we love – and who loves us – anyway.
Real love doesn’t gloss over differences either, no more than it rejects them. Real love stays in the fight and wrestles, chews them over, discusses and debates and banters and walks away at the end of the night with a handshake, and means it.
When did we stop shaking hands? The self-selecting isolation we’ve chosen for ourselves is killing us, destroying our culture, and birthing a generation of profoundly lonely, alienated people who think that to be accepted demands a uniformity that isn’t possible, isn’t necessary, and isn’t in keeping with the profound dignity of the human person.
Never stop working for the conversion of your own heart, and for the heart of every single person you encounter. You never, never know how much work God can achieve within the sacred boundaries of true friendship which wills the good (the authentic good) of the other.
And never for a moment think that real conversion can happen apart from real, complicated, dynamic, sometimes messy relationships.
God can work with that. But He can’t work if we won’t go.
After all, we’re all just walking each other home.