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.