Monday, July 21, 2008

Friendship, the Internet, and Aristotle

Melanie Bettinelli recently responded to Elizabeth Foss's musings on the balance between mothering, friendships maintained online, and the balance of time spent blogging/emailing/reading vs. time spent in face-to-face relationships. The exchange is just what discourse among women should be: a sincere self-examination--who am I and who should I become?--that seeks the wisdom and love to be had from one another.

Foss wonders how much time spent on the Internet is "too much." We spend time slinking away from our children "just to check" an email or website--and often find the next hour consumed in some thought or online conversation. Sometimes we (I) justify this time spent as being a much-needed re-charge. Some adult conversation after so many little voices all day. But is this really "time alone"? Foss says not. Mothers do need time off, time alone. Internet time is not that time.

But does it fulfill a very real need? Can the relationships formed and conversations pursued online be the deep and fast friendships that every human being desires? Again, Foss tends to think not. Real friendships are nurtured face-to-face in the hardest moments of life.My first reaction to the discussion--in my black-an-white world I like to construct--was that Foss was dead-on. Surely a more human life would be a more un-plugged life. And it is an objective fact, which often finds its way in the confessional with me, that I spend too much time telling Miriam, "Two more minutes, darling. I have to finish this email." My first reaction was an intense desire (the easy way out) to throw out the computer and television.

But Foss herself discourages that, acknowledging that the answer is not to reject life online:

"I can't tell [you] how much time to spend online. I can't even seem to set those hard, fast parameters for myself, but I can offer this: make sure the time you spend is really nurturing you. Make sure it's making you a better wife, a better mother, a better Christian. Your time is so precious and your time alone is so scarce. Make it count. Make it matter."

The greatest gift I ever received from my friends at Regnum Christi was Fr. Maciel's meditation on time and eternity. It is an offense against God to waste time. We need to be nurtured--just as we mothers are called to nurture--but that time we take for ourselves must count. It must be real.

Here is where Bettinelli begins her musings. Friends of the kind Foss describes do not always appear readily in our physical environment: "For me the internet is a primary source of that female companionship that I crave. It's where I sip coffee (metaphorically speaking) and chat about books, about education, about childrearing, about faith, about hopes and fears and dreams. It does nourish me, fill me, give me something to recharge my batteries. And I have found a faith community online as well, brothers and sisters to pray with me and for me, people I can in turn pray for, the Body of Christ, not at all incorporeal for all that my connection to it is "virtual." And maybe because it fills a hole that no person in my immediate physical environment does, I have a very very hard time finding that balance, setting those boundaries."

(You really should just read the whole thing.)

I think Bettinelli's discovery of a true community online where that nurturing takes place is an authentically human discovery. I have spent years of my life in places where true friends simply were not. The year I graduated college and got married in particular was a year of loneliness: my only real girlfriends all (and I do mean all) entered religious life and Todd and I were in Boston, a difficult place for young Catholics. The time was not wasted, and in the years since we have found a real community of friends in Atlanta, but I remember the year of feeling that there was no face-to-face time with another woman of the same aspirations. I would have loved to know there were other young wives and mothers out there who loved to think, pray, and just be wives and mothers.

Aristotle tells us that true friendship is a friendship based on virtue. Each friend finds in the other what is good and, in a Christian context, holy about him or her. They desire that the other live a truly human life. Their minds and hearts yearn for the same things. One is to the other "as another self." These things are all possible online--as they were in times past through letters or phone calls. The time spent on relationships based on virtue and a desire for greater virtue is not time wasted.

The struggle to set boundaries and not steal time away from our families goes on in almost every arena: work, writing, Internet use, exercise, art, and even haircuts. The desire for friends physically present to us will also not be satiated online. To spend more and more time on the Internet in an effort to fill our thirsts is to travel down the wrong path. Remember, Erika: It's all shadows--real life hasn't begun yet. I must pray daily to conform my little shadows to the reality of Trinitarian love. Online friendships and discussions that bring us closer to that reality are truly worthy of our time, so long as we remember their inherent lack of the physical. "Life together" must, in the end, include that day-to-day physical closeness in order to fulfill our need to be "bodies among other bodies," persons among other persons.

I have found in the writings of Foss, Bettinelli, Bean, and several others models to emulate and lifestyles I'd like to incorporate into our own. I am grateful for these relationships, but I do wish I could meet them face-to-face. The dear friends I have been given who have lived--if only for a short time--just over the hill or down the hall will always mean more than blogs. And I look forward to more of them, more of family, as many as the good Lord shall send.

1 comment:

Matilda said...

Very well said! Good post!