I went to a local Catholic Match event a few weeks ago. Ironically, the initial idea for the get-together came from some out-of-town members who were going to be visiting, and wanted to meet some local CM-ers. So they put the word out, and a whole lot of people showed up! And since I’ve been writing these columns for CM for the past four-plus years, I thought it’d be fun to go meet some of you in person.
And it was. A blast. I ran into some people I already knew, and I met a whole lot of really great people I didn’t know.
It also got me thinking – about singleness, about community, and about the difference between meeting people online and meeting people in person.
It was particularly clear to me that night what an incredible gift Catholic Match is to single Catholics. It’s not just about dating. In fact, I’d say that it’s not even primarily about dating. I think that, in practice, it winds up being about friendship. A lot of these people had been “talking” to each other on the forums for months or even years. They “knew” each other, in a way. Seeing their enthusiasm when they met face to face was really fun.
Meeting in person is different. No matter how often you chat with someone online, no matter how many deep thoughts you share, there is a certain “completeness” that is missing if you haven’t actually seen each other. People just have a “way” of being that can’t be discerned from the written word alone. It’s obviously true in dating relationships, where the element of physical attraction is so important. But I think meeting in person is also important in friendships. We’re embodied souls. Our “selves” can’t really be severed, or even fully understood, apart from our bodily existence. Our personhood has a bodily dimension.
I also think it’s more difficult to bring a friendship, or any relationship, to the level of face-to-face. Look, we all know the temptation to have a difficult conversation via email, or to break up with someone via voice mail. There’s a certain vulnerability that is implied when we’re in someone’s physical presence, as opposed to hiding behind a computer screen.
Look at Scripture. What did Adam and Eve do after they had sinned? They hid. They could no longer bear the scrutiny of seeing God “face to face.” They felt safer with a little distance (and a big fig leaf) separating them.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the various forum discussions. Many of which are fabulous, by the way. But how often do you run across a post and think “There’s no way she’d say that to his face.” It can feel a lot safer to speak our minds when we’re hiding behind a computer screen.
And thus, the danger of the relationship that never goes beyond the online, virtual world.
It’s easy, isn’t it? You hang around at home, in your jammies, “relating” to friends all over the world. You don’t have to leave the house. You don’t have to clean the house. You don’t even have to clean yourself. Halitosis is completely undetectable through the world wide web.
You feel like you’re “getting out there.” But you’re not. You’re still, essentially, alone in your house.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As I said, this on-line community is a great gift to us, bringing Catholics from all over the world together to share thoughts, to debate, and yes, to initiate friendships. What’s wrong is when this world of online friends becomes your primary source of companionship and community – when you’re spending more time online than you are out in the world of full-fledged interaction with the rest of humanity.
Relationships can suffer eventually when they exist only online. But when most of our relationships are online, we suffer personally as well. There is a certain set of “people skills” that are required when we interact with other human persons. Those skills, like any other, can atrophy when they aren’t exercised. “Use it or lose it.” What’s worse, people who don’t have those skills to begin with are probably more tempted to hide behind the monitor and avoid real human interaction.
I want to keep emphasizing that I think all of this online relating is a very, very good thing. But I want to encourage a couple of things:
First of all, don’t let your online friendships be your only friendships. Get out, socialize, volunteer. Do things in the real world. I think single people have a really dangerous tendency to base their socializing decisions strictly on the question “Where can I meet people to date?” Stop that. Get over the adolescent obsession with basing your life around meeting members of the opposite sex. See the image and likeness of God in everyone around you. Build friendships.
And second, keep making the effort to meet your online friends face to face. CM events are awesome. When you’re going to visit another city, do what Mary and Rob did when they visited Denver – ask around, put the word out, and get some people together!
I love CM because it brings like-minded people together who have the potential for very deep and abiding relationships – friendships and more. But those relationships will never become all they can be if they exist only in the one-dimensional world of cyberspace.
I want to conclude by quoting two of my favorite philosophers. The first is John Paul II:
"Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion."
And the second is country singer Brad Paisley:
I'm a Sci-Fi fanatic
Never been to second base*
But there's a whole nother me
That you need to see
Go check out MySpace
'cause online I'm out in Hollywood
I'm 6'5 and I look good
I drive a Maserati
I'm a black belt in Karate
And I love a good glass of wine . . .
I’m so much cooler online
You don’t need to be cool. Just real.