Invisible Friendships

Are you open to forming an intimate relationship with someone whom you don’t get to see?

At an after-party during the Catholic New Media Celebration in Atlanta weekend before last, I stood around chatting with a group of friends – all of whom I had originally met online – about this year’s conference. One of them took a step back and noted how strange it was that we were all there together in someone’s flat, drinking rare IPA’s and eating ice cream cake shaped like Hello Kitty’s head (don’t ask.) “There’s really no reason,” he observed, “for any of these people to be here together and know each other.”

It was an apt observation. It’s true that the CNMC always brings people together into new relationships, both personal and professional. In the days following the conference, many of the attendees have made similar observations on their respective podcasts and blogs, in their social media posts and comments. New collaborative projects always emerge online – watch this space – and people who did not previously know each other end up becoming friends.

However there’s something deeper at work here than simply throwing together a bunch of Catholic media nerds with common interests. After all, the same can and does happen at comicons or political conventions or any other similar gathering of like minds. Because beyond the silliness and selfies, the CNMC is really about recognizing the universal call of holiness to which all of us must respond.

And part of the way we do that, both in new media and social media, is by witnessing to people whom we will probably never see, about Someone whom we have not seen yet.

In St. John’s Gospel, when St. Thomas comes to believe in the reality of the Resurrection, Christ remarks: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” (St. John 20:29) Similarly, St. Peter sums up the experience of those early Christians who never got to meet Jesus in the flesh during their lives, using words which are still resonant of the Christian experience today: “Although you have not seen Him you love Him; even though you do not see Him now yet believe in Him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 St. Peter 1:8-9)

Most of us – unless we are very, very blessed indeed – are not going to get to see Him during this life. I can’t Snapchat with God. We can only hope to see Him in the life to come. That can’t happen however, unless we are constantly trying to keep in communication with Him, through prayer. 

Prayer is not like an IM chat, where we need to see a checkmark to know the recipient has received what we are trying to say. He hears all of our prayers, when we make them; we take that on faith. Yet the message is going to have a much harder time getting through, if we don’t even bother to make it most of the time. Just as you can’t expect an online relationship to grow and develop if you don’t actually communicate with one another, so too you can’t expect to come to know Him, unless you’re willing to sit down and take the time to communicate with Him through prayer.

As we stumble through life constantly sinning our way into the grave, we are blessed and lucky if we come across people along the way that will give us a hand and pick us up out of the dust and dirt that we keep falling into along the way. Intimate relationships of this kind absolutely can be and are formed through engaging in new media and social media: I’ve seen it happen, and it’s continuing to happen. Yet the most important and intimate relationship of all, the one we have with the One who made us, is so often the one we spend the least time on.

Don’t forget, as you build your online relationships, that He would love to hear from you too, if you’ll take the time to reach out to Him.
 

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New Study: Friends Really Are Like Family

“Friends are the family you choose for yourself,” the old saying goes, but new research indicates that your close friends may be more like your family than you realize.

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at 1,367 pairs of close friends from Framingham, Massachusetts, who had been friends since the 1970’s.  Researchers compared the participants’ DNA to one another, and then to the DNA of approximately 1.2 million pairs of strangers.  In their research, scientists from Yale and the University of California at San Diego looked at well over 400,000 points of comparison along the DNA strands of each of the participants in the study.

Surprisingly, the study revealed that close friends tend to be more genetically similar to each other than they are to strangers, including strangers with whom they share the same ethnic background.  In fact, the average genetic similarity among close friends was equivalent to the level of genetic kinship that exists between fourth cousins, i.e. people who share a set of great-great-great-grandparents.  That’s a pretty distant familial relationship, obviously, but still statistically significant enough that scientists are baffled as to why good friends could be so genetically similar without technically being related.

One explanation may be that people with similar genetic makeup tend to live in or move to similar environments, increasing the chances of their meeting and becoming friends.  It may also be that people with similar genetic traits also tend to share similar skills, making it more likely that they will find themselves engaged in the same type of work or activity.  Interestingly, the study revealed that close friends tend to share a closer sense of smell than any of the other senses.

A possible implication from the study, if the results are eventually shown not to be specific to the good people of Framingham, is that you might be able to create and take a genetic test, to determine whether you and someone else should become friends.  At first glance this might seem to be a pointless test, since even genetic similarity does not guarantee the bonds of friendship.  After all, almost everyone has at least one genetically close relative whom they do not get along with or do not speak to, for various reasons.

However, if these findings hold up over time, there could be potential practical implications beyond scientific theory.  For example, one could imagine that, in the formation of sports teams or military units, such a genetic test for similarity could be viewed as increasing the statistical chances of the members of the group being able to work well together.  Although not a guarantor of success, genetic closeness could be one factor among many to be taken into consideration, in the formation of productive groups.

Admittedly, most of us don’t need a test to tell us whom we care about the most.  By its very nature, true friendship doesn’t require a scientific explanation: it’s simply a gift, one freely given, received, and reciprocated.  Yet at the same time, it’s still interesting to learn that those people in your life whom you love as much as your own family may, in a sense, be just like family, on a genetic level.

"Snap the Whip" by Winslow Homer (1872) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“Snap the Whip” by Winslow Homer (1872)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Friends on Earth and Friends Above

Meeting someone in real life whom you’ve been communicating with via social media for ages is something of an odd experience.  It’s not quite like meeting an acquaintance with whom you’ve had an extended, written correspondence via e-mail, even if the messages have been going back and forth for quite a long time.  Social media outlets allow not only for an instantaneous exchange of words and images, but also of reactions: it’s their speed which makes said exchanges seem more like friendly chatter.

Yesterday for example, I got to hang out for an hour with my friend, writer and film critic Steven Greydanus, as he was in Washington recording some television appearances.  Although we’ve been chatting on social media for awhile, this was the first chance we’ve had to sit together and have caffeinated beverages.  As often happens on these occasions, I experienced an initial sensation of adjustment – this is a real person! – followed by very easy conversation.  When you’ve been conversing on social media, most of the preliminaries we human beings tend to go through when we initially meet are already well out of the way.

On the way home afterwards, I thought about how many good people I’ve met through social media over the years.  Cliff way up in Nova Scotia for example, loves the old-time radio shows broadcast online Sunday nights through our local DC public radio station, while Vicki out in Arkansas loves discussing art history and British TV murder mysteries.  And I have superbrethren all over the place, from the US and Canada, to the UK and France, since apparently I’m not the last son of Krypton after all.

However, it’s entirely possible that I may never meet any of these people. Technology has come quite a long way, but we’re still not at the point where Star Trek-style transporters stand in our office buildings, ready to zip us off to wherever we need to go in a cascade of light.  We remain dependent to a large extent upon circumstances, as to whether our online friends from Nevada or Australia are ever going to be passing our way, or whether we are going to find ourselves in their neck of the woods.  And yet as maudlin as that may sound, I don’t think it reduces the genuine good that social media can do, in forming permanent friendships.

There’s a lovely old hymn called “For the Beauty of the Earth”, which in America tends to appear on the hymn boards at Mass around Thanksgiving.  It was written by the English High Church Anglican poet Folliott Sandford Pierpoint in 1864, and is usually sung to the music of the hymn “Dix”, written by the German Evangelical Lutheran composer Conrad Kocher in 1838.  While the hymn’s structure of giving thanks and speaking to the beauties of nature make it a natural choice for singing at Thanksgiving, in Pierpoint’s verses there is a wonderful allusion to human relationships that transcend earthly limits.

In his litany of things to be thankful for, Pierpoint lists, “friends on earth, and friends above,” reminding us of the long-held Christian belief in the “communion of saints”.  That connection among both the living and the dead, as all await the Last Day, is something that helps to bind the Christian community together, even with all our divisions and disputes.  People of faith recognize that human limitations of time and space are no boundaries whatsoever to God, and so in that spirit we can direct our thoughts and prayers to those with us now, including those whom we may never get to know in real life, and also those who have gone before us.

Forming genuinely good, mutually beneficial friendships in real life through initial contact on social media is absolutely possible, whatever others may say to the contrary.  Sociologists tell us that online relationships are not real, even if they may feel real; they can be abusive, parasitic, and shallow.  Fortunately, I am not a sociologist, and I’m quite happy to give you many examples from my own life where true friendships have formed through initial online contact.  Such things are not automatic of course, since not everyone you meet through social media is going to become a close, personal friend, but they do actually happen.

Yet even in those relationships that never go beyond social media – someone with whom I share a laugh on Twitter, or whose travel pictures I “like” on Facebook – I find that I can and should still be of service in some capacity.  All of us, whatever our station in life, need other people. We seek words of encouragement, hope for the future, and new, helpful ideas.  We want to laugh, shed a tear, or share our frustrations with the difficulties of this life.  In that regard, dismissing the possibility that anything good can come out of social media, is a bit like questioning whether anything good can come out of Nazareth.

Never discount the fact, gentle reader, that not only may your words, your example, or your prayers have a profound impact on someone else whom you know in real life, but you may also have such an impact on those whom you only know through an online account.

Selfie with Steven Greydanus (Courtesy the latter)

Selfie with Steven Greydanus
(Courtesy the latter)