An interesting thing happened to me recently on Facebook.
A friend began a discussion on a topic in the news and I contributed to the thread. I asked some questions and made a few comments, as anyone does when contributing on Facebook. While my friend and I disagreed on the issue, we could see each other’s viewpoint and perhaps came to understand each other a little better. But the longer this thread went on, another person and another contributed, and at one point, I found myself arguing with someone I didn’t even know. Not wishing to offend, I tried to terminate my end of the discussion. To tell the truth, I also felt insulted by the other person’s comments.
I was then accused of trying to “take my ball and go home.” In my defense, I felt I responded in the same way anybody would in that situation, and I told the person I hoped I hadn’t offended them. I didn’t really know how else to respond. I felt a host of contradictory emotions - I was offended, I felt a vague lust for revenge, I had an appalling realization of my intellectual vanity, and a regret that I obviously hadn’t expressed myself well enough for one person to get my point. Then, I reminded myself that, in the end, the issue wasn’t worth all that much fuss anyway. Even reasonable people can be unreasonable, given the right circumstances.
But in the ridiculous emotional aftermath of this situation, I found myself curious about the person I had suddenly encountered on Facebook, so I looked up this person’s information. Among the vital statistics was the word “Christian.” And it suddenly occurred to me that, if I believe what I say I do and this person does as well, then one of the souls I’m going to be spending eternity with is this person, who basically let me know that I’m unreasonable, my opinions (at least on one issue) are uninformed, and that I don’t particularly sound like someone worth knowing. You can imagine my longing, at that moment, for the bliss of Heaven.
But Facebook presents us with an interesting set of facts, not only about our fellow men (and women), but ourselves. Facebook operates on a system whereby you seek out, identify, categorize, and bond with a set of friends. You make new friends. In some cases, you drop old friends. You perhaps bond with casual acquaintances that, in real life, you may have little or no interest in or contact with. Through other friends, you make connections with people that you may never have met in your whole life, nor ever will. Because it is a “social” network, your interaction with it depends on just how social you feel like being. You get out of it what you put in.
Like other people, one of the things I find amusing about Facebook is what you find out about your friends that you might never have known otherwise. A lot of my friends, for example, enjoy the games on Facebook that I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever. I find out about my friends’ interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes. At one point, I learned that one of my friends liked, at the same time, Robert Pattinson and Jesus Christ, a juxtaposition that I found amusing when I saw both names at the same time, given equal billing. I suspect how much enthusiasm there was for either.
The status update, or the “poke,“ gives you a window on other people too. Some people like to tell you what they’re up to, at any given moment. Some just like to check in and let you know where they physically are at any given moment. Some will vent. Some want to show you how amusing they can be. Song lyrics get quoted, jokes get shared, stories are passed, and life in all its permutations unfolds before your eyes. Because of this, others like to check updates without letting you in on where they’re drinking coffee or what kind of lunch they’re enjoying or how they feel about the election. Political opinions get shared too, and you can either be shocked at a friend’s extremism or angry that they didn’t go far enough. You don’t have to necessarily reply if you disagree, or you can engage them and make them defend their point of view. And everyone has seen friends suddenly take opportunities to make personal statements about themselves - by changing their profile picture, or showing their concern for a particular issue. Occasionally, your friends even opt out, sometimes without a word of explanation.
And as my disagreement illustrates, the age of social media also introduces us to the more unpleasant aspects of our earthly confinement. Facebook doesn’t give you an idea of the tone of other people’s voices when they try to make points. It doesn’t let you see their facial expressions. Like other aspects of the Internet, it may even allow you to hide anonymously behind a name (that may not be your own) and even a picture. It can and has been a mechanism for stalking, intimidation, abuse, and anguish. One pastor said Facebook could be used as a tool to facilitate adultery, and then proved it - whether he intended to or not - by revealing how he had used it for that very purpose. So social media, like so much else in life, is morally neutral. We can use it however we see fit, and often, we see it through the only eyes we have, as fallen beings.
But there are other stories, such as my friend who suddenly lost his wife a year ago and regularly receives encouragement from me and the rest of his friends in dealing with her loss. Or the friend who lost her job and is using Facebook to look for another, with friends eager to help. My divorced friends who need daily reminders of their worth as people and their importance to me and others. Or the regular calls for prayer for sick loved ones and friends, or those feeling the anguish of everyday life.
And it’s this aspect that I find myself curious about. Jean-Paul Sartre famously stated that “Hell is other people.” But Heaven will most assuredly be other people, and Facebook teaches us something about that ultimate destination. The Golden Rule - “Do unto others and you would have them do unto you” - is often interpreted to mean civility, or little more than good citizenship. But citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven are called to not simply refrain from doing evil. The command is much deeper and much more demanding - that we actively seek the good in each and every situation and do it. And that good involves being consumed with the welfare and well-being of those around us, both the friendly and the not-so-friendly. That we see the other as God sees them, and we sacrifice for them as He was willing to sacrifice for them.
Jesus died for everyone - including that guy you can't stand, the one who can’t spell, or the one who didn’t like the health care bill, or the one who said the unpleasant thing about your brother-in-law. Like it or not, we are going to be spending a lot of time together in the future, to put it mildly. We can’t just “take our ball and go home.” And we are learning here and now, as never before, how difficult that can be.
The rules and the situations will be different there, of course. We will not see ourselves and each other through the prism of sin, which clouds and corrodes every movement and every touch. Our words will not have their ever-present patina of malice draped over them, nor will we be automatically guarded and unconsciously alert to every perceived slight. We will not be carrying the emotional baggage of every incautious word we have either spoken or heard. And we will be finally stripped of the ignorance we bring to each and every moment of our lives. We will know, just as we are fully known, forever. No secrets. No 20-year-old profile pictures. No hiding behind Farmville. You and the other, in the presence of God, who Himself will be fully revealed and worthy of worship. The implications of that are both terrifying and exhilarating.
The reverse is just as stark. What if hell, for instance, isn’t other people at all, but solitude? Separation from God is one thing, but the silence of God must be filled, either with the anguish of others or the magnitude of our own. An eternity to contemplate, in exhausted and exhaustive detail, the regrets of a lifetime, perhaps by ourselves, or burned by the torment of others can be seen in the momentary collapses of civility we see on Facebook and elsewhere. Some situations are only tolerable because of the presence of others. But a relentless torment with no relief, with not even the comfort of camaraderie? This is the ultimate end of what we carry inside us when we lash out, or lash back, for whatever reason here. “Dislike” doesn’t even cover it.
So Facebook is a window and an opportunity, a foreshadowing of what is to come, and a laboratory for what is still possible. As we discover each other, we discover ourselves. And we discover Him through each other, which is what He wants us to do, peeking in on each others statuses, giving the occasional poke, as we update each other along the way.