Thursday, 19 December 2019

I am real

A friend of mine has recently made a move away from social media. This is a decision I understand, and I sympathise with her choice. 

The world of social media leaves a person feeling battered at times, and I think it has a tendency to intensify feelings of helplessness and anxiety as we face the rising problems and sense of threat in the modern world.

I spent some months away from social media myself, and noticed on returning to it to reconnect with friends I missed, how quickly I felt swamped by the dismay and, in many quarters, outright fear, at the deepening horrors of climate change and the steady rise of ruthless élites voted into power by gullible traditionalists.

In shaping and developing a life without the social media where she was once very present, my friend sometimes feels lonely. In writing about it, she speaks about remedying the situation by spending time with a "real friend", in contrast to a friend online. She reflects on the transition from online relationships to "real" ones.

I would like, if you will permit it, to encourage you in the direction of contrasting "offline" (rather than "real") with "online".

Many of you who read here have never sat in the same room with me. Even so, our exchanges and the friendship that has grown between us is real. Though you may have only ever communicated with me here, on Facebook, and by email, I do assure you — I am real.

The things I say, I really believe, and I think the connections we make online may be among the most strengthening aspects of our lives in these times of fragmentation, as pockets of despair deepen and fester.

Social media isn't a helpful environment for everyone, and certainly some people interact there more constructively than others. But the re-allocation of something you no longer engage with as not "real" rings an alarm bell for me. It is the tendency of thinking other people are in some way not human, not real, that permits and encourages social cruelty. It begins with thinking they don't matter because they are not fully human. This one mistake is very evident in racism, sexism and homophobia.

It is true that if you don't like what I write you can unfriend me on Facebook, unsubscribe from my blog, shut down the page, turn off the device. But even then, I am still here and I am still real, just as you are; only, disconnected and no longer in conversation.

We are physical as well as imaginative beings, and I think it is healthy for us to be physically in one another's presence — a hug, a handshake, a cup of tea together; these contribute vitally to our wellbeing.

We do also have the opportunity to make the effort to meet up physically with friends we've met online — and doing so can broaden our horizons considerably. Many people whose interactions centre on social media are either poor or disabled, so that travel or participation in clubs and societies and other traditional gatherings is limited for them. It is for me. I live well and contentedly, but that's partly because I accept these limits.

But, thinking of what my friend had to say, let me reassure you, I am real — and if you would like to meet up for a cup of coffee, you might feel brave enough to get in touch and say so. 

I am as real as you are. It's just that you are there and I am here. The nice thing about the internet is that it connects us. 

I think my own most powerful experience of social media was the night Troy Davis was executed — September 21st, 2011. 

From what I have read, this was a terrible miscarriage of justice. As frantic last-minute attempts to save his life, by stay of execution or by clemency, were deliberated, Troy Davis lay strapped to the gurney awaiting the outcome. As the hours drew out into the night, gradually the news channels shut down. Only Amy Goodman of Democracy Now kept her channel open, acknowledging how much this mattered. Around the jail, waiting, a quiet crowd kept a candlelit vigil. All round the world, people like me were praying, were gathered; and our link was, primarily, Twitter.

I was in Hastings, UK. Troy Davis was in the US state of Georgia. But I have always been grateful to Amy Goodman, always remembered her, because she kept her channel open through the night. I never knew the individuals who tweeted as the hours dragged on, informing our prayer, keeping watch together, but I have to say it was one of the most profoundly real experiences of my life, and in truth it was a great deal more real than quite a range of social encounters that have happened to me offline.

It can feel frustrating at times, to make these links and connections that may never be physically fulfilled. I'd love to visit Bean in Indiana, meet up for prayer and conversation with Julie in Minnesota, sit down for a coffee with San in Lancashire, but it may be I never will. 

I met my friend Deb Sokell online. She'd read my books and got in touch through this blog. We corresponded by email, and one by one as my books came out she read them and enthusiastically reviewed them on Amazon, God bless her. Deb was a crafter, working textiles. She never had much money, so from time to time we used to send her fabrics and trims and such things, and she loved getting a parcel through the mail. 

At the end of Deb's life, we had a few last brief exchanges. When she went into the hospital, desperately ill, she emailed me to say the last thing she'd done was buy all nine of my Hawk & Dove series for her Kindle. She wanted to read them in the hospital, and she wanted me to have some money (from the sale of them) she said. I cannot tell you how deeply that touched me. She needed some crafting things (colouring and card-making), so I rushed out to the shops and got her some bits, packed them up quick and sent them by the fastest postal service available, so she had the joy of making some cards in the hospital.

Her mother let me know, at Deb's wish, by addition to the long thread of email correspondence between Deb and me, that they'd moved her into the hospice for end of life care. And then communication went dead. I enquired by email, and begged that they let me know, but I heard nothing more. I suppose, for Deb's relatives, I was not a real person. I searched and searched online for any news, again and again, but never found any. But I keep her in my email contacts, and still have her address in my Amazon address book — I used to send her my books one by one as they came out, because she couldn't afford to buy them. She said she sat excitedly under the letter box (mail slot) waiting for her parcel to arrive. I still have her as a favourite seller on my Etsy account. These online traces are the echoes of her life, and I treasure them. We never met face to face, and I don't even know what Deb looked like. But was she not a real friend?

Really here, this quiet and chilly December day, in Hastings, England.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this; it is so beautiful and true. When I reflect in my own life upon the past 20 or more (!) years already, some of the most precious and meaningful interactions I treasure and cherish have been with souls only ever encountered online. This is partly because I have no family who maintains contact together and partly due to places I've lived (either very low population rural where one might only see and speak to 1 or 2 other humans each week, or dense urban spots with such cold anonymity and nobody showing interest in becoming acquainted with anyone new).
I agree with you so much that we can disconnect from online involvements and this can be greatly to our benefit, and I think it is a harm acquired from the internet itself that anyone can just click or switch off other human voices or souls. We could not do that so easily if we were all intertwined and interconnected in a physical village - imagine trying it!
Everything grows so artificial. I'm "only" 44 and find the world so shocking and wearying every day. I don't know if it makes me an old woman before my time, or keeps me a perpetually startled little girl. Probably both.
Thank you again Pen for your lovely precious blog and writing.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello, friend.

Let me pick up your heart cry: "Everything grows so artificial. I'm 'only' 44 and find the world so shocking and wearying every day."

I know what you mean.

In these last days of 2019, I'm starting to gather my intentions for 2020.

On the 26th of this month there is a new moon, a good opportunity to take some time aside and thing about what we want to start, what we want to grow in our lives, in the months ahead.

I wonder (just a suggestion) if in a world where artificiality has exhausted and disappointed you, it might be possible to set an intention that this year you will grow authenticity — like growing a nursery of trees. Maybe you could try to initiate at least one authentic encounter in each day. It wouldn't even have to be with a human being; it could be with a wild bird, or a ray of sun, or even a pot plant. But on days when you have to go out to the shops, maybe a little chat with the assistant at the checkout, or the person next to you in the queue — something to encourage them or make them laugh, make them feel valued and beheld. Then the world will be that bit more authentic and less artificial, because of you. x

Sian said...

(Sorry if you've received this twice)
Hello Pen, I've just caught up with your posts from the past month or so and have found them so interesting, thank you for taking the time to write them. I'm reading your book 'The wilderness within you' too at the moment which is so helpful in trying to get along the path to know Jesus better and hopefully find a stronger faith and feel some support in that. I'm sure I'll read it again at Lent (!) and looking forward to your new Advent book when it comes out. I so enjoy reading your blog, as it feels like I'm hearing from an interesting, wise friend on lots of different topics, many of which are new to me and that's lovely as in the 'real' world I often feel quite lonely (lovely husband but no close friendships) - carefully chosen blogs and social media can help me feel some connection which is good and I'm always hopeful that better times are ahead. All the best to you, Sian x

Anonymous said...

Thank you, I'm going to do that <3

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello Sian — thank you — your message just came through the once. It's like breaking through from another dimension, isn't it!
I'm glad the wilderness book is striking a chord for you — the Advent book follows on in the same vein.
My aim in writing here is to create a fireside where we can sit down together over a cup of tea. I love your blog too, and am often well hooked by your reviews and recommendations. x

Hello Anonymous friend — come back and tell us how you get on. Check out the video bringing to life the Luttrell Psalter that I've posed here — I think it will resonate with what you are bringing into reality.

Sian said...

Hello again Pen, many thanks for your reply, no need to post this if wanted but I just wanted to say that I don't have a blog so thought it best to let you know so I'm not taking credit for another (blogging) Sian's work! Wishing you a peaceful and restful Christmastime, Sian x

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh! Thank you! Not that Sian, then . . . Well, hello, Sian the Other! xx

Julie B. said...

I had missed this post somehow. I can't describe what I felt as I read this. What a true friend Deb was. And how true your friendship to her as well. This was a glimpse into beauty and wonder for me. May Deb be in joyous peace. And may all who love her be comforted by The Comforter. May we meet for prayer and conversation on this side of heaven. xoxo

Pen Wilcock said...

I think we will. Eventually. xxx