The Covid lockdown has me reflecting on how humans communicate. I’ve been thankful for Zoom and Skype and all of our electronic ways of talking to each other from home, because talking to each other is as much a basic need as food and air.
But electronic communication obviously lacks the immediacy and warmth of being in the same room with another human, being able to touch and hug, or to see the twinkle or the pain in the other person’s eyes. It’s efficient, but doesn’t enhance relationship by itself. It reminds me of a joke my father-in-law told.
He was a quiet man, not given to drama or drawing attention to himself in a group, but every once in awhile he told a funny story that was all the funnier because it was so unexpected, and delivered deadpan, until his wry smile at the punchline. Also, having grown up in a German community in North Dakota, he talked like Lawrence Welk (who grew up just down the road), which added a lot of flavor.
This story is about Farmer Jones and Farmer Brown. These two farmers had a feud going, who knows what about, but they refused to talk to each other. This worked fine until one day when Farmer Brown’s bull broke out of the pasture he was supposed to be inhabiting and ended up in Farmer Jones’ pasture.
The normal procedure in this case would be for Farmer Jones to call Farmer Brown and give him a heads up, or, if he was exceptionally generous, to load up the bull in his truck and haul him home. But Farmer Jones was having none of that. He decided to send a telegram instead. The shortest possible telegram, because apparently you were charged for telegrams by the word, and Farmer Jones wanted to spend as little money as possible communicating with his sworn enemy.
After giving it a great deal of thought, Farmer Jones sent a one-word telegram: COMFORTABLE.
There was no response from Farmer Brown.
A few days passed. Military maneuvers were conducted in Farmer Jones’ pasture (unlikely, I know. This is a joke, remember). When they finished and cleared out, a grenade was left behind, and believe it or not, Farmer Brown’s bull found it and swallowed it.
Farmer Jones sent a second one-word telegram to Farmer Brown: ABOMINABLE.
Still no response from Farmer Jones.
A couple of days later, as the grenade-carrying bull cavorted in the pasture, he tripped over a large rock, and exploded (note to city dwellers: bulls are boys; cows are girls).
Farmer Jones sent a final telegram to Farmer Brown: NOBLE.
What an efficient communicator Farmer Jones was. The bull and Farmer Brown were dispatched with only three words. Of course nobody sends telegrams anymore, but we have a modern version of telegrams called texting.
Texting has many advantages. It saves time. You can do other things while having a texting conversation, thus accomplishing the multitasking our culture so values. If you don’t want to interrupt the person you’re texting, you can send your message or question and let them get on with their day.
If you’re feeling shy, or threatened by the person you’re texting, the degree of separation helps you feel less vulnerable and more in control. If you’re angry, frustrated or disappointed, texting might be a better option in order to keep things from exploding.
Often though, texting, like Farmer Jones’ telegrams, is pure laziness, a stand in for personal communication. At times I feel the emptiness of staring at a text and wishing I could hear the words and how the person is saying them. I want the other person to hear my voice so they don’t have to wonder what I really mean. I suppose that’s why emojis were invented, as insurance. If someone texts “I have to cancel lunch today,” and I reply with “OK”, I’m going to need to add a smiling face to let them know it’s really OK. And while hearing from someone by text is better than no communication at all, texting can feel like we’re keeping each other safely at arm’s length. Which I believe we are. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes that’s needed, or the best way of communicating at the time. Let’s just be honest about what’s happening.
Texting is a mixed bag.
Somewhere I read that while sheltering in place we should be looking for what God is doing. I had no answer to that for weeks into this, but now I’d say that God might be showing us how desperately we need the community of flesh and blood. We’ve zoomed and skyped and texted and emailed and talked on the phone, which has been wonderful, but no substitute for physical presence.
Last weekend my husband and I went out to dinner at an actual restaurant, sat at an actual table, and were surrounded by actual people, in person (appropriately distanced, of course). For a few minutes I drank in the buzz of friends greeting each other with gusto, spirited conversations and laughter, masked servers running back and forth, all the interactions, and it was glorious. It felt like waking up after a long, deep sleep and finding that the world is still there.
Loneliness kills; sometimes our bodies, always our souls. Now that we’re gearing up to spend time with people again, we need to savor and value the in person-ness of community, the hugs (soon, I hope), the crinkly-eyed smiles, the fragrance of a grandchild’s hair. We need to be generous with in-person conversations, not just electronic communication. What an incredible gift, to look people in the eye, for real. Our hearts need people.
And that, my friends, is NOBLE.