Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Friendship in Post-Facebook Lent

For many people, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of losing contact with friends. It didn't used to be this way, but something has changed in the age of Facebook. More and more people rely on it (and other social networking sites) for a whole range of communications. And far from just being a way to talk to people one barely knows, Facebook is taking on increasingly significant roles in communications between real friends, those friends you know apart from the Web.

I'm not sure this is a bad thing. There are some powerful benefits to a site like Facebook. I love being able to show photos to a range of family and friends, and see pictures of my adorable baby nephew and other people I care for--all so very easily. I enjoy having the ability to post articles and notes, and discuss them with others. I like the convenience of sending quick messages to others, either privately, or in the broader social context of wall posts. And I can't forget applications like the Scrabble and Chess ones that let me play others as it's convenient... Taken all together, it's quite a benefit and I think it enriches the quality of life.

The danger though is that it can become addicting and distort one's sense of priorities. It becomes so easy to engage others through a computer and not make the time to see others face-to-face. It's especially convenient not having to worry about so many things like how you're dressed at the moment or what time it is. It's so easy to put oneself out there, at least enough to socialize and garner affirmation, without all the work and vulnerability of traditional ways of communicating. It's slippery. The good things might get swallowed by the bad if one isn't careful. Not to mention, Facebook can take up a considerable amount of time.

It's no wonder then that many people see Facebook as a good thing to give up for Lent. But what are the implications of being a regular Facebook participant and then not signing into your account for more than 40 days? (Sure, you could give up Facebook for Lent and still catch up on Sundays, but many people will have other things to do on Sunday.)

To the extent that technology has changed our habits of communication, it's changed the nature of community as we experience it. It's a much broader phenomenon than Facebook, but it's especially vivid with Facebook. How many exchanges that would have taken place by phone, had they occurred just a few years ago, now take place over Facebook? It's become rarer to call someone, rarer that one feels the need to have that voice-to-voice contact (let alone face-to-face contact). And a likely consequence of that is we'll have less time left in our schedules for making phone calls. Without a regular habit of doing something, other activities will fill that space. And now, when someone is off Facebook, there's an extra hurdle in communicating because you have to re-create time and motivation to make a phone call. So many people will simply fall out of touch, and friendships will stagnate.

But what about those people one falls out of touch with that aren't very close as friends at all? Is that really a big deal? There will still be time for phone calls and other activities with close friends, those friends that one already has regular context and experience with apart from the online realm.

Perhaps. But what about developing and not-quite-close-but-not-just-acquaintance friendships? Within the larger context of online community there are friendship possibilities that may not otherwise exist, possibilities for these borderline, growing, potential, lukewarm, what-have-you friendships to grow into much more. While quitting Facebook shouldn't mean the loss of any close friends, friends where a foundation is already built apart from the Internet, it may mean lost opportunities for some other real friendship and community.

Friendship requires pro-activity, not the pro-activity of planning a relationship or becoming too focused on the other person, but a pro-activity of making oneself available. The ease that characterizes the Facebook experience may be misleading. If friendships are to grow, one must invest time, one must invest oneself by putting oneself into the contexts where friendship happens. It may be necessary to make some phone calls or free up some time in one's schedule to meet up with someone for coffee or a couple beers (though many people give these up for Lent too!). This was already the case, but it's all the more so now that many of us lack the habits for quality time, which have been supplanted by Facebook.

But friendship is not just a self-serving good. Friends are not just assets insofar as they're convenient. And they're more than just supports when we need someone to lean on. We enjoy our friends and derive many benefits from relationships with them, but something more should be at play. When friends are really as they should be, each reveals to each, a little more of the Mystery, a little more of what life is all about and what our places in it are. Whatever common subject(s) of appreciation a friendship has, therein lie profound opportunities to enjoy the Good and relate it to the Other, to demonstrate, with the perfect subtlety of experience, transcendent Beauty. Every friendship is unique, and every friendships has the potential to manifest a unique aspect of the Mystery and of God.

It is really, really important that we experience good friendships. When we have the experience of friendship, we not only receive, but we also give, and this gift takes us beyond ourselves. This element of sharing a common pursuit or appreciation must occur in time and event with each other. There are a variety of forms it could take, but there must be some action, whether completely bound up in exchanges of words, or expressed in other activities. Friendship is an event.

The most complete friendships arise in the context of community; and the healthier the community, the healthier the foundation for the friendship. By 'community', I don't mean the cheap sort of de facto community that refers only to people living, working, or spending money in proximity, but rather what might be better thought of as a circle of friends. The friendship of one provides the assurance of the not-yet-realized friendship of another, such that even where various parties might not yet know each other, trust is presupposed. Here, old friendships provide the ground for new friendships.

Action is needed. Communities don't happen accidentally. Before one can be drawn out of oneself to participate in the manifold of friendships that a community is, it must be intended and sought out. The late participants in a community may not have initiated anything, but somebody had to. Somebody had to plan a party and send around invitations. Somebody had to suggest going out for lunch. Somebody had to get a group together for a happy hour at a local bar. Somebody had to take care of getting concert tickets so people could go together. These things are about so much more than pleasurable diversion. These are occasions for tending to the very ground of friendship, sharing beautiful experiences together and encouraging friends in their pursuit of the Good. It takes time and it takes initiative.

Now that it's Lent and some people will be disappearing if they're not sought out, it's all the more a good time to plan some ways to draw people together and foster the community of friends. We do not embark on this Lenten journey as individual pilgrims struggling on our own, but as men and women traveling with friends.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Inaugurating “What the Water Wants”

In June of last year, Technorati (a blog search engine) had indexed over 112.8 million blogs. Everyone has a blog it seems. There are an incredible number of people already posting their thoughts to the Internet for all the world to see, creating such an overwhelming amount of content that one may begin to wonder, what is it all for? What are we to make of this plethora of perspectives, this exponential multiplication of words? It’s almost enough to make one think adding another blog to the mix would be a mere exercise in vanity.

And yet, I find myself thinking I should venture into this blogging business. What could I hope to contribute of real worth? On any particular topic, it seems, there’s already someone blogging about it that knows more than I do. I also don’t want to have one of those blogs that exists just to point readers to other sources, selecting niche news items or calling attention to this or that Website which the blogger finds interesting. There are already quite a few of those.

On the other hand, it is possible that if I write about what interests me, others will find it worthwhile too. But it's not really important that the blog ever find a large audience. What's important, I'm learning that I need to write my thoughts out. And so I might as well do it in a blog.

The name comes from a song by the artist Sufjan Stevens called “Sister”. I often think about what the water wants. . .

So, what shall I write about here? Naturally, I’ll write about what interests me, subjects that I believe are important. While this will potentially include a wide range of genres, I hope that the common threads running through each will be apparent to readers. I’m interested in topics on gender/person, life issues, economics, environmental concerns, family, culture, art (especially music and film), philosophy, politics, faith, and other subjects. As a guiding principle, I recall the words of St. Paul to the believers in Philippi:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4.8, NAB).”
And so I hope it will be with What the Water Wants.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thoughts on 'Pro-Life'/Pro-Life

Several people have questioned me for the views I’ve expressed regarding the pro-life movement. I hope to give some explanation of my perspective and provide some context here. I must touch too lightly on too many points in order to keep this reasonably brief. It would likely be necessary to explore many of these points in much further detail--and I hope to in future post--to really cover these matters adequately. Nonetheless, here's a start.

It's true I do have something against 'pro-lifers'. Far too often, 'pro-lifers' have persisted in very anti-life stances. To start with, they have allied themselves with the all-too-often pro-death Republican Party. When someone claims, on one hand to be pro-life, but then goes on to defend, and profess such admiration for a man like our recent President George Bush, it is hard for me to understand. Bush has supported needless execution and needless war. Bush has promoted racist (or classist, etc.) immigration policies. Bush has acted with indifference to the poor and the marginalized when it comes to basic goods like healthcare. And probably most incomprehensibly, Bush has led our country into vile practices of torture. (How can anyone who cares about human dignity defend this man’s actions as President? Consider this from Time.com.)

And it’s not just Bush. ‘Pro-lifers’ have a long history of supporting Republicans because of the lip-service they pay to the cause of defending the not-yet-born, but then looking away when these politicians promote or support egregious policies in violation of life.

It is precisely this silence, this willful ignorance, or perhaps even this consequentialist hypocrisy that allows the Democrats to remain the pro-choice party, and allows the Republicans to go on working in opposition to life, doing little if anything about abortion. ‘Pro-lifers’ are being used by politicians who serve power. ‘Pro-lifers’ are enabling the perpetuation of these evils by not demanding better.

Anyone who really cares about life cannot afford to pledge blind allegiance to a party that has screwed them over again and again. Only when Republicans know that we will not tolerate hateful, anti-life positions on any fronts, regardless of their rhetorical manipulation on the big abortion wedge issue, will they do better. And probably, only when Republicans are a better choice than the Democrats, will the Democrats get better. It’s competition, and too many Americans, especially too many ‘pro-lifers’ settle for too little, allowing injustice to continue.

And then there is the arrogance and closed-mindedness of many ‘pro-lifers’. Once they have already decided that fighting abortion is a cause so important that it trumps any possible other concern, they already have all the answers. They don’t need dialogue anymore. They don’t need to think about complex issues, or weigh difficult decisions. They don’t need to listen to anyone with opposing viewpoints, or try to understand how it can be possible that so many people, in our age with modern science and such a good understanding of how life develops in the womb, still persist in defending the evil of abortion. Or so it is assumed.

In reality, if we’re to win the abortion fight, it must be through the conversion of hearts and minds. But how will the opposing side ever be won over when they not only witness the arrogant and judgmental tendencies of the ‘pro-life’ movement, but when they also see its hypocrisy. There are many who will see the abominations which have been committed under so called ‘pro-life’ leadership, and scratch their head. One might think: “It can’t really be because all these ‘pro-lifers’ care about life that they’re pushing so hard against abortion. If they really cared about life, they would have been up in arms to oppose this needless killing in Iraq. Or they would have been tireless in fighting to see America stop practicing torture. Or, they would be making real efforts to the help the poor…. but as it is clear that they don’t really care about these things, it must be that they are more interested in their own self-righteousness and pushing their own beliefs on others, regardless of what challenges, beliefs, etc., others may have.”

Do people look at ‘pro-lifers’ and see love? Few people have been as fearless in speaking up for the not-yet-born as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and she is pretty universally respected. The larger movement needs a witness like hers, but one only achieves it by caring for people in all stages of life. While Bl. Teresa was admired for how she served the poor, most ‘pro-lifers’ I know will not even support plans to provide healthcare for the millions of Americans that don’t have it, if it might mean some kind of modest personal sacrifice.

So, when we talk about ‘pro-life’, there’s a lot at stake. I keep using so-called scare quotes, because I’m not criticizing true pro-life. I’m not criticizing any personal sacrifices made to defend life. But being truly pro-life means defending all life, and to the extent that this is realized, one would be above reproach. On the other hand, just calling oneself pro-life, doesn’t make it so.

Now, it is true that there are some who would self-describe as pro-life who are very holy, very dedicated individuals who passionately pour themselves into the cause of defending the unborn. Those who pray at abortion clinics and peacefully, respectfully, work for the conversion of those engaged in abortion practices should be regarded as heroes. I wish to take nothing away from them. But no amount of concern for the unborn could ever justify indifference to life in other stages. And if we’re honest, we must face the fact that many in the ‘pro-life’ movement are slothful when it comes to educating themselves about other views, and timid when it comes to promoting unpopular truths that challenge those within the group. There really is an “us versus them” mentality surrounding the abortion debate (in large part again, thanks to the idols of power in our political system), and it’s something we have to get over.

Why do I make so much of this? Because I believe that the fight against abortion will never be won until those who would defend the not-yet-born purify themselves of influence of politicians lusting for power--politicians who have time and again manipulated the ‘pro-life’ movement--and stand together in the service of the Truth. I believe that these very babies whose deaths we mourn depend on us to get this right. It is not enough to ignore all other concerns and say that defending the unborn is the most important thing. Defending the not-yet-born IS the most important challenge facing us (at least in a civil sense) but we will only succeed by also addressing other life issues. Nothing short of a total respect for human life will effect the kind of witness necessary to bring real conversion.

I’m encouraged by the way the bishops have been responding. If you haven’t yet read Cardinal George’s January 13th letter to Obama, I strongly recommend it. His Eminence begins the letter assuring Mr Obama of prayers, support and cooperation in working together for promoting the common good. What follows in the letter are the most important issues before our government now, as seen by the American Church. Defending unborn life is one of these of course, but only one. It is my hope that we would take our cues from our holy bishops and work together for the common good, and in so doing spread the Gospel of Life. The success of the pro-life cause depends on it.

Meanwhile though, as I witness the chatter on online and overhear it in other places, I’m struck again and again by how much Christians have decided they should hate Obama. (Though I don’t expect many would admit to actual ‘hate’.) I’m struck by how cynical they are, gloating with “I told you so” or blaming with “This is your fault, Obama supporters” in the face of his tragic decision on Friday. One sees a lack of hope, and a lack of charity. Obama has already issued the order to begin closing down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. This is a wonderful turn of events! Obama is working to set right one of Bush’s most horrible offenses against life. Truly, these are bittersweet times for our nation. But in these bittersweet times, many of those who would champion life prefer only to acknowledge the bitter.

We must not count our new president out yet. We must neither place blind trust in him, of course. But all people have the potential for extraordinary good. On this Feast of St. Paul’s Conversion, it is revealed in a special way that God does not judge as we judge. If Saul were walking the Earth today, persecuting Christians even to death, I’m sure many of us would have trouble seeing his potential. But the amazing turn of events is that Saul encountered Christ and was radically transformed by him. How likely or unlikely isn’t even a question. It was done according to the Lord’s will, plain and simple. We must pray with faith, certain that the same Lord is working today and can change President Obama’s heart on this issue of abortion. And likewise we must pray for those in Congress, and our other elected officials. And likewise we must pray for those who seek, support or perform abortions. There is no room for cynicism. Cynicism poisons our message of hope, renders concern for life incredulous.

There is a vicious cycle of cynicism, and despair, each feeding into each other. We cannot afford this. To be really pro-life is to be a person of hope. As we experience it, life is far too often marked by suffering and utter incomprehensibility. But what do we answer to this if we do not answer with hope? Our hope is not in our government, nor in our charismatic new president. Our hope is in Christ who will never fail us. I see in our culture, in the secularization of the language of hope, that people are ready to believe. They want to believe. They hope in ways that they do not even understand. And when they encounter Christ in us, they will be transformed.

This is what it means to be pro-life: that we love all people—the not-yet-born and the born, the conservative and the liberal, Republicans and Democrats, the straight and the gay, the bacon-fetishist and the vegetarian, the Christian and the atheist, the poor, the sick and the dying, the healthy, our neighbors, our families, immigrants, Israelis and Palestinians, terrorist, all of our enemies…. Life is too beautiful, too much of a blessing, to settle for less.

I don’t pretend to be perfect or to have it all figured out. My own failings are many. I frequently fall short of what the Gospel demands of me. While I continue to try to live a life that is truly pro-life, I count on the prayers, exhortations, and encouragement of my friends. I offer what I have in hopes that it will edify, and encourage you. As iron sharpens iron, so we must sharpen each other—always, in the service of Life.

Let us pray without ceasing for an end to abortion and the proper respect of all life.