Since our first real cold snap a week or two ago, the door on the driver’s side of my Jeep Cherokee Sport has been locked up. I’ve become quite adept at entering the car from the passenger side and, I’m sure, have provided a good bit of amusement to people in various parking lots around the South Shore. Today, when I took my car to have the oil changed, I got the door fixed as well. The problem was not big, they told me: the locks had dried out.
While they were fixing the car, I was next door in the Dunkin Donuts drinking coffee and reading my Utne Reader (one of my Christmas presents from Ginger). The first article was called “Our Blackberries, Ourselves” by Lisa Else (taken from a longer article in New Scientist magazine), in which she discusses whether all the opportunities we have to be “constantly plugged in” help us to be better at self-reflection and community:
People are connecting one on one – they have their online social networks or their cell phones with 250 people on speed dial – but do they feel a part of a community? Do they feel responsibility to a set of shared political commitments? Do they feel a need to take responsibility for issues that would require them to act in concert rather than just connect? Recently, connectivity and statements of identity on places such as Facebook or MySpace have themselves become values. It is a concern when self-expression becomes more important than social action.
Her words took me back to familiar words from one of my favorite novels, Howard’s End by E. M. Forster, which looks at the changing face of human interaction as the technology changed drastically in the days before World War One:
Mature as [Henry] was, [Margaret] might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire . . .
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
When my family first went to Africa in 1957, the only way to get to Southern Rhodesia was to sail from New York harbor, across the Atlantic Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, to the port of Beira in Mozambique on the southeast coast of the continent. The voyage took thirty-one days. When we wanted to call our family in the States at Christmas, we had to make a reservation weeks in advance with the international operator and then pass the phone around quickly so everyone could speak in the three minutes we were given to talk. What news we got from family came by mail that arrived two weeks after it was written.
By the time we came back to America for our first leave four years later, we could fly and be back in Texas in just a few days. Tonight I can read any African newspaper I want with the click of a mouse. I love that I get the chance to make contact with those of you who read this blog – and particularly with those who comment – and I’m aware that it is more than “only” connecting because how we connect is also important. Many use pseudonyms for their online identities. Some reply anonymously or without a way to respond other than in the comment box. I love that I can look at the map on Stat Counter and find readers from Singapore to Seattle; I even had one from Azerbaijan. I love reading the blogs of people with whom I share some “cyberintimacy” because I want to see what the next chapter in the story is. My world is wider because of this blog. And Lisa Else has a point: the value of the connection is only as good as the community it creates. We are treading new ground here. No one before us in human history has had the capacity to get so much information so instantly and in such volume. When I log on to AOL to check my email, I’m often presented with a “news” page that juxtaposes things like “Three hundred killed in car bombing” with “Man breaks hot dog eating record,” as though the two stories deserve equal consideration.
It can’t be as easy as “only connect.”
It isn’t. Listen to Forster one more time:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
The endless stream of the twenty-four hour news channels tells one story, shows another in a smaller window, and ticks another across the bottom of the screen, fragmenting both our world and us. Margaret’s sermon was to connect head and heart, heart and hands, passion and prose, faith and action, thoughtfulness and intentionality, patience and urgency so that life feels like something other than a centrifuge.
We are paradoxically blessed to live in a time when we can know what is happening around the world. These are days of wonder and days of incredible responsibility. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded;” Jesus said, “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). I ‘m still floundering trying to figure out what knowing about the situation in Darfur means for my life. What I’m learning is I’m missing an important connection if I think of it in terms of my life or my response alone. It is in the connections that “human love will be seen at its height” – connections I find in family, in church, and here on this blog that help pull the fragments together.