I rejoined the human race today.  I came back from the impromptu sabbatical I took yesterday when my Enough meter exploded.  Although we did have a fantastic tea party, the girls and I also had a full day of school, during which we worked hard on difficult concepts.  I also did the grocery shopping I was supposed to do yesterday around five o clock this evening.  It was the first time I’d interacted with live human beings outside my girls all day and, wouldn’t you know it, something happened.  Standing in line, waiting to check out my groceries, I watched as the woman in front of me idled.  She picked up a magazine, flipped through it and then she did something that just about made my heart stop:  she turned on her phone and loaded up a Words with Friends game.

Now.

Let me just preface this entire blog post by expressing my probably undying affection for WwF.  That game not only makes me feel like a genius, as I win quite frequently, but, more importantly, it acted as a catalyst for some meaningful conversations with people I really care about. That game has played a part in great healing.  It’s also fun.  I enjoy playing against my eight year old daughter, which I think is way cool.   So.  I have an abiding affection for that game and, normally, if I see or hear of someone playing it, it makes me broadly smile.  I love WwF.  It’s cool.  But.  Today, seeing the stranger in the grocery store play it while we both waited for our turn at the check-out made me very, very sad.  I wondered… why is she more comfortable talking to people through a game on a handheld devicee than she is in striking up a conversation with the people around whom she is actually surrounded?   Have you tried striking up a conversation recently while in line somewhere?  I have.  And, most of the time, it’s polite, short and awkward.  I’m left thinking about how they’re wondering why I talked to them.  Like, it’s strange that I might interact with actual human beings.  Why is it that we’re more comfortable interacting with others when there is a buffer between us?

There’s lots of ways of saying it but, ultimately, I think it boils down to the fact that we’re afraid of intimacy, of becoming involved with another person’s life voluntarily.  I can read about your father passing away and express how sorry I am to hear that without having to see that your eyes are swollen red from crying.  I can read about how you celebrated your eighteenth birthday, but I’m not obligated to actually buy you a present.  If you get sick, I can cheerfully say  “Hope you feel better soon!”  without being expected to call or offer to bring you a bowl of soup.  On some of the writer sites I frequent, it’s amazing how many theological, hypothetical, philosophical debates we strike up.  The discussions are sometimes thought provoking, sometimes comical and sometimes irritating as I’ll get out (I’m from the South so that’s a perfectly acceptable phrase!) but I highly doubt that any of us would start a conversation of such depth with a stranger in real life.  If I tried, you’d think I was insane.  Also, you wouldn’t give me your real opinion—you’d likely respond politely, with a smile and nervous laugh.  Even if I comment regularly on your Facebook updates, if we see one another in person, we often shift from “buddies” to acquaintances.  The intimacy of real friendship, of real relationships, is frightening.

If I use the “delete” key enough, and am extra vigilant about protecting my avatars and updates, then I can double check, triple check, totally make sure that you don’t see the socially inept, clumsy and awkward person I –really– am.  I can be my “best me.”  I can say what I want to say how I want to say it without fear of stuttering or otherwise making a fool of myself.  In real life, see, the way I avoid being the fool is by being practically a recluse.  I teach, I lead, I speak, yada, yada, yada—but you’re going to have to really work at convincing me to have lunch as THAT thought terrifies me.  What if you see me flustered?  What if I –don’t– have anything earth-shattering to say to whatever genius thing you’ll say?  What if you walk away thinking,  “Wow, she’s not nearly as smart or pretty or funny as I thought she was.”   The real me isn’t nearly as talented as the black and white words I write sometimes suggest—what if you found that out at lunch?  Also, did you know that I usually have paint somewhere on my body at all times, and my fingernails are short and usually paint-chipped.  I have no idea how to “do” my hair so, depending on my level of confidence at the moment, it’s usually either in a ponytail because that hides the imperfections it has or down because, when it’s down, it helps me hide my face.

At its core, a fear of intimacy is a feeling of self-doubt.  It’s not –really– that I don’t trust you (although that very well may be the excuse I feed myself), no, instead, it’s that I can’t understand why you would want to take the time to get to know the unedited version of me.  I’m afraid of failing your expectations, I’m afraid of being judged inadequate, I’m afraid of being embarrassed or feeling inferior.  Intimacy is being actively involved in someone else’s life—intimacy is wanting to know the REAL answer to the socially expected question “how are you doing?”  I might ask that of the check out lady in the grocery store but if she replies with more than a “good” or, my favorite, “fine”,  don’t I usually start to feel nervous?  Intimacy is the search for true understanding of another person, and it’s the willingness to really share despite the possibility of rejection or criticism.

 

You want to know a real secret?

The truth is..  deep down in my gut, despite all my confidant smiles and happy-go-lucky smiles, I believe that getting to know me requires you to make a sacrifice because I’m not the easiest person to understand,  I come with a whole lifetime of major issues, my expectations are high and, quite frankly, you really don’t get much in return for sacrificing a portion of your sanity.  So I try to help you out.  I’ll smile, assure you I’m fine and stick to socially accepted questions and answers so that you don’t have to become involved with “someone like me.”  I give up the opportunity for intimacy in this way, and you pass the opportunity up by refusing to dig,  and we retreat to our isolation sanctuaries.

But.

The lack of meaningful communication creates a hole in our life, a hole in the heart.  We were meant to be relational people and need at least the pretense of intimacy to thrive.  So we turn to the computer… we feel safer here, where we can greatly reduce the risk of rejection.   People comment on our updates, they read our blogs, and they comment with approval.  We feel accepted, without having to experience fear or discomfort. We’re hiding while pretending to be “open.”   There are many positive things to say about social media outlets like Facebook… personally, that site has been the conduit for great healing and even improved self-confidence for me.  There’s something wonderful about feeling connected to others’ lives, even when those lives are hundreds of miles away from our own. I’m not criticizing or bashing these outlets, in fact, I respect and enjoy them.  My only point is that they don’t totally sustain us, they don’t fill the core need for real intimacy.  Via these social media outlets, we can obtain knowledge of another person without having to invest emotionally and, if we don’t invest in others’ emotionally, then the hole inside our hearts, the desire for intimacy, can’t be completely filled.

When I was in the eleventh grade of school, we moved to a different city, leaving a treasured high school and several pivotal teachers behind.  We returned before the end of the year to get school records and, when we did, I went to see a special teacher.  I found him in the library.  When I touched his arm, he turned around and saw me and his entire face lit up like a light bulb with a slow smile. He quietly whispered  “wow” while reaching out to pull me in to a hug.  And my heart filled with the knowledge that I was special, and that I was important to him.  Prior to this surprise visit, I’d sent him a traditional letter via the postal service, a letter that he had responded to in kind.  I’d thought, when I received the letter, that nothing could have been better.  But I was wrong.  Without saying a single word,  the look on his face and the development of that smile convinced me that he really did care.  He gave me more on that day, in that moment, than either of us could have possibly realized.  He was just my teacher.  But he made me feel special and cared for.  No e-mail, no status comment could have made me feel as valued as the expression on his face did.  No emoticon could capture the warmth, or sincerity, I saw in his eyes.  I surprised him, he didn’t have time to prepare a warm greeting,  he didn’t have time to prepare and what we managed to capture instead was a moment of friendship and warmth that meant more than even his warmly written letter had.

There’s a song that says,  “Maybe I can rest beneath your smile.”   With my whole heart, I love that phrase “rest beneath your smile.”  It’s brilliant.  And it’s so wonderful because it’s exactly what happens when someone smiles at us, or genuinely connects with us.  Intimacy has the capacity to hurt us so terribly because it’s the opinions or behaviors of someone who was more than a curious bystander to our lives, of someone who was actively involved in our lives, someone who was granted access to our innermost thoughts and ideas.  Intimacy is more than sexual relationships, it’s more even than romantic love.  Intimacy involves anyone with whom we connect personally—friends, co-workers, family.  Intimacy is the expanding of our circle and allowing someone to hold our hand.

When you’re out at the gas station and a stranger smiles at you, what do you do in return?  My guess is that you return the smile automatically.  And when you do you’ve touched that person’s life just as he’s touched yours momentarily.  It only lasts a moment, those smiles between strangers, but have you ever noticed that they break up the otherwise stressful day?  Have you ever noticed that, after smiling at the stranger, you’re breathing deeper when you get in the car.  If you’re really stressed out, you might not even remember smiling at the stranger until that night, when the danger has passed and you’re left to ruminate over the day’s events.  But, once you remember it, it makes your heart light, it makes you want to weep or smile just for thinking of it.  During those seemingly innocuous moment, your soul rested under the weight of another’s smile.  The burden was lifted, the sadness was lifted, the insecurity lifted, the anger lifted.  None of those things vanished–they’d return–but, just for a moment, all was going to be okay. I end most of my status updates on Facebook with a :).  I didn’t do it consciously at first, it just evolved into a habit.  But I’ve kept it because I try to remember that nothing can replace the warmth, the touch, of a genuine smile.  Smiles are the request for truth; smiles are the seeking of knowledge;  the chance to seize intimacy with another person.

The computer may eliminate our fear of rejection, it may make it “safer” for us who find it hard to interact with the outside world, but, in truth, it’s in the overcoming of that discomfort that we find real ‘friends’, that we discover what connection is all about, that we are given front row seats to the power of a real  :).

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