Lately I’ve been thinking about some electronic spaces that have become sacred spaces for me. There’s a lot of blog posts and publications floating around the internet (perhaps ironically–I often see them posted to Facebook) decrying social media as the downfall of real connections and meaningful relationships. They cite studies that show a decrease in general happiness that corresponds with increased screen time. They remind people that their thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers are not really their friends. They admonish people to have real-time, real-life relationships.
They’re not wrong. We all need people that we can spend time with in person. We need friends who we can go do things with. We need people who can encourage us face to face, and laugh with us, and explore with us. That’s all true. Electronically-mediated relationships are not a substitute for local relationships. I can say from experience that they cannot alleviate the slow soul crush of loneliness, or the emptiness of isolation.
But I can also say they make it easier to bear. My first year here in Atlanta, when I felt so desperately lonely and had a hard time forging relationships of any kind, Facebook and text messaging were lifelines for me. It’s hard for me to describe just how much it meant to me every time someone posted on my wall, sent me a message, texted, emailed. Even though I was struggling here, it helped to know that there were people who loved me and cared about me and missed me, even if they were all a thousand miles away. It helps still.
On Facebook, I’m part of a message chain with my four closest friends from college (one is also from high school). We’ve been chatting pretty regularly for a few years now. Every few weeks or so, one of us will pop into the message chain, asking how everyone else is doing and often sharing either a joy or a struggle. Usually a struggle. We encourage each other and pray for each other. We also often lament the fact that we don’t live closer together. But it’s so special for all of us to have this space–imperfect though it is–that is safe and comfortable and bright. These relationships are sacred, and this space that allows us to not just stay in contact but to continue to be a part of each others’ lives in spite of the fact that we all haven’t lived in the same place in about 10 years. These brave, kind, faithful, funny, encouraging women have been making my life better and making me better for my entire adult life, and I will be forever grateful for the electronic space that that keeps them close.
I also have an email chain with a life-long friend (or close enough–we’ve been friends since we were 4). We titled it Code Teal, because when we were in middle school we spend so. many. hours talking on the phone, and mine was a teal cordless that I picked out because I was 12. And since we were 12, everything was a crisis. Now, everything is not a crisis, but Code Teal emails are where we share our struggles with each other and offer our support. It’s the things we would talk about if we lived in the same city and could go grab coffee. But we haven’t lived in the same city since we were 15. We weren’t always close since her family moved away, because back then it was hard to keep track of people. We were still paying for long distance phone calls, for crying out loud, and email was basically a new technology. But Facebook allowed us reconnect as young adults, and now we use email because both of us tend to write at length. Even when we passed notes in middle school, they were several pages long. And again, email isn’t ideal, but it’s a space that I’m grateful for.
I’ve got a couple of friends that I text with regularly too, and those spaces are also sacred to me. Even when it’s just a few words, “The foliage is beautiful today. Wish you were here!” or “How’s you prospectus going? Can I help?” these messages are absolutely priceless to me. Taking the time to remember me and check in, to let me know that I’m loved and not alone. To share with me when they’re having a hard time. It’s beautiful. It’s sacred.
And the truth is that even if I had more friends here than I could handle, none of them would replace a single one of the these women whom I interact with almost exclusively through electronic environments. Social media and other technologies have their drawbacks; there’s no question about that. They’re not ideal, and they’re not perfect, and they’re no substitute for being physically present with people. But they can also be valuable, sacred spaces of meaningful connection and deep, life-sustaining friendships. For that, I am grateful.