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More Than Disembodied Consciousnesses: Some Reflections on the Challenges of Our Collective Isolation

I’m 42 years old.

Mine is the last generation to have grown up in the old world. The world before the internet, and cell phones, and everything on demand. I think of it as “The Slow Time,” because everything then felt so much less urgent.

Speed limits were lower. We did more walking. We sat around just talking.

People came home from work, and mostly, they left work at work. They didn’t sit at the dinner table checking emails.

When my family watched a movie, nobody was scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook at the same time. We actually paid attention.

As kids, we played outside more often than not. My mom put restrictions on our television time, but until we got cable, that wasn’t really even an issue. Three channels on a television with manual UHF/VHF dials and rabbit ear antennas meant there wasn’t much worth watching most of the time anyway.

As kids, we climbed trees. We built forts. We rode our bikes. We played with toys powered only by imagination, not batteries. A downstairs neighbor at the duplex I lived in during my 8 years in Stafford Springs, Connecticut, gave me an old beat up boombox. I’d use it, in a low-tech preview of my future work in podcasting, to record radio shows I’d make up. The play button could be held down half way to speed up the tape, so I’d spend hours recording my voice at high or low speeds, so I could sound like a giant or a chipmunk, respectively.

This was, at the time, the greatest technological achievement I could imagine.

When I explored the neighborhood, or ventured even further, the only way I could check in was to find a payphone. My home phone was the rotary kind, a hefty beige appliance mounted on the kitchen wall, where even dialing a number took extra time. Although, to be fair, you never had to use an area code back then. 7 digits was enough. I still remember my phone number from grade school.

Throughout my life, though, everything kept speeding up. An analog world increasingly turned digital. Computers got faster. Modems became a thing. By age 15, I was on an internet that was so bare bones, there were hardly any pictures. I don’t think I got my first cell phone for a decade after that, but once I did, I was upgrading every 1-2 years. I built a computer — a big, hulking thing with a CRT monitor that weighed nearly 50 pounds — the summer before college. It had a fraction of the power and storage space of this flat, black, rectangle sitting in front of me on my desk. My phone is a supercomputer by 1997 standards.

As technology improved, we spent more and more of our work time with it. As it became more entertaining, we spent more and more of our free time with it. As it became ubiquitous, we found more and more that the line between work time and free time was almost completely blurred, and our faces were glued to our screens more often than not. Swiping over from a game to reply to that email from your boss before checking that Facebook message from your mom while binge-streaming a show stopped being science fiction a long time ago.

These days, we all spend a lot of our lives online. And as this pandemic has spread around the globe — we’ve passed a million documented cases of COVID-19 as of today — we’re all spending even more of it there.

Let’s be honest: it doesn’t always bring out the best in us.

As human beings, have been distilled into disembodied consciousnesses. We are word clouds roaming an electronic landscape where most of us will never meet in the flesh. Thousands of people who have never shaken my hand or shared a meal with me will read these words, but you don’t really know me. Oh, you know some things about how I think, sure. But we’ve never sat for hours around a fire, discussing the things that are important to us. You don’t know the things in my life right now that cause me joy, or pain, and I don’t know yours. Whether your marriage is in crisis or you lost your job or your mother just found out she has cancer or you just haven’t combed your hair today, when I run into you online, I don’t know. I have no idea if you don’t tell me.

People only see what we want them to see.

We’re all at a perpetual masquerade ball, and it’s become so used to it now that we forget that it isn’t normal. We put on the faces we’re comfortable sharing. We go online, and we “talk” to other people, most often without even the benefit of perceiving the subtle nuances of tone of voice, facial expressions, or body language. We misunderstand each other. Sometimes we purposefully misrepresent each other. We score social points, or we lose them. We argue. We emote. We share memes and GIFs in a hope of humanizing things. We have profound theological debates while not even wearing pants.

We’ve been doing this for a while now, even though we didn’t have to. And now, suddenly, we’re all socially isolated, and if we want to talk to other people, we have no other choice.

The world has never — not ever in the history of time — been in a situation like this. We have been forced to be alone, but we are all still connected.

The vast majority of us are confined to our homes. We try to get what work done we can from there, if we’re fortunate enough to have that kind of work. We try to find things to do together with the people we live with, if we’re fortunate enough not to live alone. Unlike in ages past, where a plague or pandemic left us largely ignorant of its scope or nature or what we should do, we are drowning in information we struggle to understand. We wonder how much to believe, or who. We argue about facts and numbers, deploying terms we didn’t even know a few weeks ago — “CFR” and “r0” and “asymptomatic transmissibility” and “fomites”.

A virus even scientists are struggling to understand has reduced us to a world full of shut ins, but only physically. Our disembodied presences are now spending more and more time traversing the void. And we are getting restless. Some of us are burning bridges, so passionately are we standing our ground on opinions we’ve only just recently scraped together. As our stir craziness increases, as our fear of both illness and financial ruin blooms, we find ourselves in verbal brawls, alienating family and friends, our hair-trigger block fingers ever itchier.

The truth of the matter is this: there is little of value to say about the facts of what we are facing that has not already been said. We find ourselves recycling the same arguments over and over, our growing cache of articles that affirm our confirmation bias ever ready to cut and paste. Meanwhile, we appear to be entering the most critical time for the testing of our assumptions. The numbers are growing daily — those infected, those recovered, those who have died — and they, ultimately, are the only things that will tell the story of this historic moment. The next page of the history book, of course, will be the economic toll. Were the measures we took enough? Were they too much? How much did we harm ourselves by trying to protect ourselves from an enemy we barely understood and could not see?

And there are other subtexts here. What liberties did we surrender? What spiritual lessons did we learn?

One thing that has us on edge: this virus seems to invert the virtue of courage. Men in particular have a tendency to be willing to risk danger for a noble cause — be it family, friends, country, or faith. But with this virus, it is in the very risking of our own well being that we unintentionally risk the well being of others. We cannot act in ways that would traditionally be seen as courageous without implicitly opening the possibility that we will harm the weak and the vulnerable – the people we most want to protect. This thing is a bit of a monster, and it’s forcing us to think about things in ways we haven’t before. There will likely be much good that comes from that, but right now, it’s quite a challenge to make the correct prudential decisions.

Which brings us to the Church. The Church was already enduring what has arguably been her worst crisis in 2,000 years. And then, with breathtaking speed, this wrecking ball of a papacy was reduced to a state of almost total irrelevance. Even Francis the Formidable is inconsequential in the face of a force like this. For weeks, we’ve barely even talked about him, or the machinations of his little cabal. He has been reduced to an also ran.

Instead, we’re being forced to remember what matters about being Catholic. Which, if you think about it, is actually a good thing.

Wherever you stand on the matter of suspending public Masses, whatever you think about the reasons the bishops did what they did, for the first time in the lives of many of us, we are being forced to come to terms with what Catholicism in a time of persecution might feel like.

Over the past few years, we’ve read about situations like Soviet persecution of the Church, or of the Japanese Catholics going 300 years without a priest, and we’ve referenced these as an example for how we must keep the faith during this time of trial.

But now, we’re being given a taste of what they actually went through. It’s just a taste — we’re not truly being persecuted (yet) — but many of us are finding it more bitter than we imagined when it was only a hypothetical.

People who have never missed a Sunday or holy day of obligation have now experienced what it is like not to have a Mass to go to.

People who have fallen into mortal sin and are in need of confession are now faced with the terrifying reality of not being able to be absolved at the healing hands of a priest.

People who are dying are being denied access to those eternal-life saving graces offered in last rites.

Many of us are outraged, and, to be frank, outrage is an appropriate response to a number of the circumstances we are now facing. But while righteous anger is at times the required response of a well-formed soul, there are deeper lessons here for us.

How have we taken these things for granted? Have we merely expected to receive the Eucharist without concern for our disposition? How often have we grumbled about having to get up for Mass on Sunday, or been distracted while we were there? How frequently have we slipped effortlessly out of the state of grace, knowing that when we got around to feeling sorry, God’s mercy would be waiting for us in the confessional? How many of us have chosen to wait until we were at death’s door to confront our need for repentance before our time runs out?

Some of us who have striven to be faithful for so many years are now even being asked to confront the question of whether we have allowed our love of the Church and her sacraments and our hatred of the evil and corruption that has infiltrated the Church to mutate into spiritual pride.

There are lessons in all of this. Hard lessons, but ones that can blossom into real spiritual growth if we ask God for the grace to accept this cross. We certainly will not benefit from them if left to our own devices. On our own, we’re far better at missing the point.

So here we are: we find ourselves at a moment in this crisis where we have much to reflect on and a great deal of time in which to do it. I wish I could offer good counsel on how best to approach this, but I’m probably worse at it than any of you. I have many struggles:

I struggle with faith, and with really loving God more than just fearing Him.

I struggle with understanding why God allows some of the things He does to happen.

I struggle with the repetition of certain sins, and my own undying selfishness, which together stand always as reminders that I am arguably the last man who should try to offer profitable Christian advice to anyone, despite the fact that I am writing this right now.

I struggle, looking at that last point, with my own penchant for hypocrisy.

I struggle with personal pain from things that have happened and are happening in my life — the ones I don’t show in my disembodied online form — along with insecurities that nag at me, erode my perseverance, and make me want to throw up my hands in frustration sometimes.

I struggle in my interactions with others, in my frustration at how they conduct themselves, or how poorly they seem to think things through, even while failing to see the extent of my own failures in charity or reason or personal conduct.

As you can see, rather than having answers to offer, I have a full plate of things I need answers for. I can only ask God to help me to love Him, to help me to see myself clearly, to help me to overcome everything within me that keeps me where I am, instead of helps me get where He wants me to go.

I’m no prophet. I’m not here to tell you that what we are enduring is a chastisement, and certainly not because of this or that newsworthy event. It certainly may be for those things. But I would suggest that if we want to profit from this, we should choose to view it as a chastisement not for things that others have done that have scandalized us, but for our own sinfulness, which, if others knew its extent, would scandalize them.

We should remember, too, that many people are struggling right now. Their disembodied selves, these people we interact with every day on our favorite websites but into whose eyes we have never looked, whose company we’ve never shared, are probably not showing us their true pain. Perhaps they are worried about a loved one getting sick, or who has already. Perhaps they are facing a lost job, a lost business, a painful family situation, or the looming questions of how they will buy food or pay the rent. Perhaps they are angry or argumentative for reasons that we cannot see.

I think it’s safe to assume that we all need a bit more kindness than usual right now. I say this as someone who both needs to receive it, and needs to remember that others need it from me.

In closing, I can only offer the advice you already know: Keep praying. Keep reflecting. Walk away from your screen and take a walk. Sit by a fire. Watch a sunset. Smell the flowers that are beginning to bloom. Spend time in the real world with your family. (I’m an introverted writer who can’t look away from the train wreck, so these reminders are really all mostly for me.)

Wherever you can, use this time to grow, and to build up the people who may be trapped at home with you. Look for opportunities to deepen your appreciation for what you have been deprived of, hopefully only temporarily, rather than being angry about the deprivation.

There is no crisis, if we are blessed to survive it, and accept it as the providence of Divine Will, from which we cannot emerge better, stronger, wiser, and closer to God.

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