Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish "community" and the medical "community" and the "community" of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we're lucky, a "sense" of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience. And now friendship, which arose to its present importance as a replacement for community, is going the same way. We have "friends," just as we belong to "communities." Scanning my Facebook page gives me, precisely, a "sense" of connection. Not an actual connection, just a sense.
We live in a highly technological society. We can't escape the plethora of virtual relationships. But we can make choices that lead us towards real relationships, friendships, etc.
- We can call rather than text (hearing a real voice).
- we can write a letter longhand, rather than e-mail (this allows for an exchange of chemicals!).
- We can write in a paper journal rather than blog.
- We can take a walk and look at the buildings in our neighborhood, rather than look at pictures of distant buildings, no matter how beautiful, on the Internet.
- We can go to live lectures and discussions groups.
- We can watch a play occasionally, rather than always go to the movies. live theater involved bodily interaction between the actors and the audience--any actor will tell you how important this is to a particular performance. In fact, I have gotten to the point of sensitivity about this issue that I can barely sit through a movie, but love to go to live theater.
- We can get your money from a teller at a bank rather than from the ATM in the lobby.
- We can admit that all those people on that list in Facebook are not really friends. Only a handful probably are, and they are the ones we either have or have had significant face-to-face contact and interaction with over a long period of time.
For the politically minded among you, this is one of the reasons for the often ignored principle in Catholic social teachings called subsidiarity. You may have heard the criticism of Hillary Clinton's book, It Takes a Village, that the Federal Government isn't a village. You may have also heard that this is just conservative and reactionary. Well, maybe it is, but it is also quite consistent with CST. A village, or community, as the article calls it, is a structure of interpersonal relationships reinforced by direct, person-to-person contact. Huge, impersonal entities, such as central governments or multi-national corporations, cannot respond in a personal way. If there is a social problem, the intervention should be on the lowest social level possible. That does not mean that there is no role for the Federal Government, for instance, to keep the huge corporations in check.
I wonder if a case could be made that the most successful large cities are ones that have a strong system of intentional neighborhoods. See Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill for a fictional reflection on this idea. At one point a few years ago Minneapolis intentionally developed and encouraged "neighborhood identity." My sense is that it was both successful, and helpful especially in poor areas.