On Internet “Relationships”

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Originally published at Deeper Story

When I think friendship, I think of the girl that sat and talked and cried with me on the dock, the night before I left for Kosovo. I think of the afternoon so many of us ran through a thunderstorm, laughing loudly, slipping on the grass, wet to a chill. When I think my people, I remember our hands resting on her back as she sobbed into the steering wheel on a truly tragic night. When I think relationships I think presence and proximity, I think touch.

To me, real relationships have always been the unedited, unfiltered lives of my family members and college roommates and coworkers. The imperfections and flaws are critical to the love shared, seeing them in their spontaneity, in their mess-ups, in their weeping, has revealed more to me about them than any bio they could write. Any post they could pen.

The closeness, here, feels critical. I couldn’t imagine us growing into another any other way.

In my early days of blogging and twittering, I didn’t know what to call people I talked often with “online.” Friend felt too intimate and stranger certainly wasn’t accurate. I didn’t know how to categorize these conversations that created inside jokes, deep familiarity, secret-telling, and then mutual concern, a kind of vested interest in each others’ personal day-to-day lives. It was all so different. So new. So scary and oddly soothing. I couldn’t figure out what to make of it.

Sometimes I’d leave the internet in an effort to unplug, or just because life demanded too much of me, and when I’d come back, I’d notice messages from people who were asking where I was. Why I didn’t respond. Was it something offensive they said. I had unknowingly hurt people or made them angry, several relationships ended.

I freaked, a little. I didn’t know how to handle the sudden pressure to show up for each of these friendships, scattered as they were across social media platforms. So I stopped responding altogether. I stopped chatting. I stopped using social media to be social and started utilizing it as a tool in the construction of my “platform”. I decided that this wasn’t me- no, it wasn’t anyone. It was exactly what Orwell and Huxley had been warning us about. I was confusing life with the machine, the artificial with the authentic, I had to stop.

And I was wrong. Well, sort of.

The internet never will be nor should be the replacement to people to people relationships. It is not the ideal. I don’t wish for a world of all agoraphobics slowly wasting away in their beds behind brightly lit screens.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not good. That doesn’t mean it isn’t healthy. One of the most important leaders of the faith, Pope Francis, suggested once that these online relationships were, “a gift from God.”

As I’ve been getting better at keeping up with internet friends, albeit slowly, I’ve learned that it isn’t the medium that renders these relationships bad or unfruitful. It’s the people involved. Just like Real Life.

And I’ve even witnessed, first hand, how these friendships made in these mediums are not separate from real ones and wouldn’t necessarily be different if they were played out in our day to day lives. Somehow, they stream effortlessly into the same bond.

I could tell you all about meeting twitter friends for coffee and the brief mental conflict between thinking their avatar and seeing their skin and bones, but then watching the conversation fall out effortlessly, for hours.

I could tell you about the Portland bloggers that many of you read. One called me the night of the World Vision backlash and told me I am his brother and I belong in the church. Another left me a vox (which is like a voicemail app), with a prayer she was praying for me after I had tweeted while I was at a party, sitting on a sofa beneath a conversation between two who spoke as if no gay person could hear them. Another called me one night, and she was the first blogger I spoke with over the phone. The two of us talked for hours about God and writing and dating and the difficulty of presenting a perfect faith online because you’re an outsider whose overcome expectations and you have to be an example.

I could tell you all about a mom in Michigan who has showered me with so much encouragement and prayer and gifts from the Amazon bookstore. She shows up for me when I need to confess my mistakes and offers sure, steady words of wisdom that restores breath to my lungs. She’s also hilarious and an incredibly skilled writer and visual artist. She’s designing my next tattoo.

I could tell you about the people of Deeper Story, and about other friends on twitter and Facebook and Voxer. I could tell you how some of the most important conversations I’ve had, I’ve had over email.

But I want to tell you why I started writing this post. I want to tell you about a funeral I attended recently.

It was on a Sunday, and it ripped a gaping hole through our church.

She was a cancer survivor that fell back into remission. She was a mother of a gay son, a son she once went several years without speaking to, turning her attention to God who she prayed would change her son. When she first told me this story, she had ended it with: “My Bible is tear stained from all those years of praying. But in the end, he changed me.”

She reconciled with her son and became an activist in our church, joining a number of us seeking to bring about change through dialogue.

My mom and her invited into a private Facebook group for moms of LGBTQ kids. The membership is far and wide, tacks all across the United States. And what they do there, primarily, is get to know one another and pray for one another. They celebrate good news together like stories of acceptance by relatives, by the church. They discuss ways to best support their kids, figuring out how Jesus would’ve handled all this.

In the corner of the lobby of the church sat a large arrangement of vibrant yellow flowers. They were from the moms. The moms who walked with this woman through the devastation and exhaustion of her cancer, the ones most easily accessible as she lay bed-ridden. They prayed for peace. They affirmed God’s love. They held together as one large pillow she could lean into, rest upon.

And they sent flowers in her honor. They changed their profile pictures in her remembrance. They stood in prophetic witness for a woman they loved, prayed for, wept with. A woman they had never even met.

And I’m here to tell you now, despite it’s flaws, this internet is such a gift. It is pulling down the walls that have kept us away from each other for far too long. We were always meant to know and be known. It is making new paths for the lonely and bridging into communities all over. It is allowing us to live into that truth that we have always belonged to one another.

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  • Tana Hendricks

    So fortunate to be a part of this wonderful group! Thank you Ben for honouring her and the relationships we build on line and others can also, not a replacement for, but an addition to the fabric of our lives.

  • carolb12

    Ohhhh Ben, your words make me weep, but they are really good tears–redemption tears. I think of our sweet Jeannie, and I know what she meant and still means to all of us, especially her son. I think of each mom in our group and feel more than a kindred spirit–a Holiness resides there. A real raw Divine connection. I think of how I have depended upon, and at times even RELIED on your amazing way with words to feed my soul in a way that I am able to take one more step. Ohhhh how you have worked out your salvation with fear and trembling–such a process of maturation over these past few years. I think you are one of the most amazing people I have ever come across, and pray I get to hug your neck some day. Thank-you yet again for opening a vein and bleeding out everything you learn so we too might gain wisdom. ILU

  • acousticmom

    Ben, thank you for honoring our dear Jeannie and the sacredness of these very real relationships. Although you and I haven’t met in person, I have the same real love for you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried with you, hoped with you, and have been healed by your words. I do hope we’ll meet in person someday.