24 January 2017

Longing for the pony express

Certain days find me longing for the return of the pony express. As a man in mid-forties, I of course cannot remember the pony express which ran for just 19 months during the 1860s. But I do remember a time when correspondence was slower. Letters were delivered by postal carriers across the country and around the world. I've always lived with telephones, but they didn't always fit in my pocket and were typically attached to the wall.

The rapid acceleration of information technology has also hurried our communications. What once took days or weeks to convey can now be done instantaneously. I can receive a year's worth of correspondence in a day on a computer little bigger than a deck of playing cards.

To be sure, there are clear advantages to faster communication. I can carry on a conversation throughout the day with my wife who is currently 50 miles from me if and when I need to. Not only can I can send words, but also pictures and videos if I wish. I can sign legal documents and fax them directly from my phone to an office on the other side of the country. I can hear someone's bad news in a moment, and send my condolences and prayers straightaway.

Yet, like all things, the rapidity of communication has problems as well. Who of us has not regrettably sent a text or email that has not been carefully pondered? Who of us wishes that we weren't omniaccessible?

With social media and rapid communication, on a relational level, we end up trading depth for quantity. I have 686 "friends" on Facebook, some of whom I have never met personally and many fewer to whom I would send an actual Christmas card. The type of Trinitarian relating that Jesus prayed about in John 17 is essentially lost in cyberspace.

Further, belonging to an instant-access global community retards our ability to engage in active problem solving for ourselves. One hundred years ago, when someone faced a problem, they did not have the option to text their six nearest friends to seek advice; they had to sit with their problem alone or actually seek out a neighbor or family member for assistance. I believe this is especially true in the world of soul care. The opportunity to sit over a cup of coffee with a real person whom you know and who knows you carries with it a palpability not available on the web. Presence matters.

Finally, our always connected world limits our opportunity to be alone with ourselves and with God. Shutting out electronic distractions is physically uncomfortable for many of us, so we live always in their presence. Whistles and bells and notifications constantly beckon us away from ourselves and from God.

In sum, I am increasingly aware of the potential harm of constant availability. I don't want you to be able to get ahold of me in a moment's notice (and expect my response) unless there is truly an emergency. Its not good for you and its not good for me. So when I don't immediately respond to your text, email, Facebook message, or voicemail, do not fret. Enjoy the time alone.

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