Sunday, 5 April 2020

Thin vs Full


Thin. This is the word I find myself reaching for to describe the experience of life and relationships over video rather than in person. Whether a time of prayer with friends, or an evening of games in 'gallery view' it has all the components of the real thing but none of the actual experience; I mean we're all there, visual versions of ourselves on a screen with all the same noises - the 'yes, amen' and the 'hey you cheat it's my turn!' but somehow it doesn't feel, well, real.

This time of perpetual digitisation is reinforcing for me the significance of the embodied life and it's driving home the importance of stressing that we're embodied creatures, not just machines and not just souls with shells.

Praying with friends over screens is the activity where I sense it the most. There is the same sounds and the same intentions but none of the same experience. Praying with others in the flesh is an intimate and life-giving expression of familial affinity, praying over screens gives the appearance of the thing but with none of its life.

Sitting with someone in the same room as them and talking with them, requires me to attend to them in much closer detail. I can't walk away while they talk, I can't multitask, I can't fein interest, I can't offer the right words with none of the right sentiment. Rather, when we're in the room I feel your presence, I'm aware of the space you occupy and the atmosphere you've created. I have to move around you, I have decide whether you're a friend or a foe. When I'm with you I become tense when I've upset you, my skin discolours when I feel shame, my pulse raises when I'm angry; or I can tell when yours does. When I'm with a person I have much more capacity for empathy.

I have also noticed during this time how much TV shows and films require ad rely on music to elicit my emotions, and I've come to see that this is in large part owing to the lean medium of the screen. The musical bed does what a person's embodied presence in my kitchen does for my intuition and empathy. Had you noticed that before now?

It's not that a physical encounter with someone is better and a video screen encounter worse, it's only that a video experience of someone is, well, thinner. It is the difference between pornography and loving, faithful monogamy, between individualism and a loving family and between a facebook friend and a loving father.

I have noticed as well how, paradoxically, in a video call I don't seem to see a person anywhere near as much as I do in a phone call. Why is that I wonder? Perhaps it's because that in the phone call my visual handicap forces me to focus much more on the nuances and subtleties of their communication, their intention, their pauses and their tone. On the phone I listen to them, on the video call I only see them. In the video call I recognise that they exist, whilst on the phone I can validate their existence.

To quote the famous wedding passage from 1 Corinthians 13: 'Right now, we see as through a glass darkly - but then we shall see face to face.' How ironic it is then that even though we see one another face to face we still miss the experience of being in one another's company?

We were made to know life to the full, God is life. We were made to know God face to face but experience instead thin encounters with him.

Our experience of life at the moment has been made thinner by the experience of forced separation, what we crave is fullness of relationship. Face to face relationship, for all it's awkward social experiences, and nervousnesses allows us to experience ourselves as living and breathing and shaping and making creatures. The pressure and anxiety we sometimes feel around one another stems from understanding the responsibility on us to make our interactions count. It comes from perceiving that our words and ways are acts of creation (or destruction); and it's this that makes our life feel, well, full.

Video calling feels like a constant exercise in planning for life rather than actually living it. We are designed to be movers and makers, cultivators and creators; that's what full living is, and that's why the video life feels so, well, thin by contrast.

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