Can’t remember why, but this weekend the children wanted to hear what old dial up sounds like. So, replete with turkey and potato, I googled “Dial Up” on my smart phone and played a long, five minute recording of some poor computer trying to Send/Receive. The iconic harsh grating whine of a modem filled the dining room and I sat back, transported immediately to college and the thrill of communicating with people on the other side of the world, my own family in fact. I looked up and the children’s faces were contorted in horror. “This is so awful,” they said.
“Yes, well, it’s not a pretty sound, but what if it meant you could send email?”
They turned up their noses. “Why would anyone even want to send email?” they asked.
They are free, in the silent, insidious, pervasiveness of their technological devises, to despise the wonders of the past. I tried to describe all the lost and forgotten rituals of my youth–the many steps required to make a phone call (finding the phone book, looking up the number, going to the phone, dialing the number, standing there and talking), the ancient art form of writing a letter (taking a piece of paper, writing out a complete thought, finding a stamp, going to the post office).
“Now,” I said, “when you see me with my phone you have no idea what I’m doing. You don’t know if I’m texting, or wasting time on Facebook, or reading something important.” They looked bemused. Why would they want to know what I’m doing? Once they have Facebook they will be able to see my whole life anyway. One of them determined never to have Facebook ever. Another one wished he was enjoying it’s delights at that very moment.
“Long ago,” I said, “when I was a child, it wasn’t a moral good to be famous. You could just grow up and get a good job and have a family and that was counted as a success. You didn’t have to become a famous YouTuber to have worth as a person. You could just be ordinary, known by the real people around you. Even if there were only three of them.”“Yes,” said one of them, “but you had to live with that sound to get an email.”
The persistent craving of the human person to be known, to be connected to other people across time and space, has driven us technologically ever forward. But it has also made us needier, less settled, more anxious than probably ever before. We put ourselves out there, measuring the soul by a hit counter, by thumbs up or thumbs down, seeking solace in followers. But every few days another study measures our isolation, our loneliness, our inability to form real long lasting relationships. The thumbs fly ever faster and the soul shrinks into lonely emptiness.
Today marks the beginning of Advent, which moment I think is particularly relevant to the modern person, wandering the halls of Twitter and com-boxes, trying to be known one way or another. That God would enter into our world in complete obscurity, in the darkness of night, laying aside his brand and his crown, would reveal this wonder to some shepherds who could not record it on shake free smart phones with camera on both sides, would go along through his life being misunderstood, misidentified, distrusted–why? To show off? To shame us?
No. He came into the darkness, knowing that the darkness would not understand him. He would overcome the darkness. We, who want to be known by everybody, would be known by him. God himself would break into our loneliness, our isolation, our disordered ambitions and reveal himself to the smallest, the lowest, the least known.
I’d like to say that for Advent I have some kind of plan to correct my own insatiable need to be known by strangers. Some program I could set out for myself to rightly order the intrusion of technology into my soul. But that misses the point. The point is that I am in the dark, however brightly the screen in my hand obscures that darkness. And I cannot by myself turn on the True Light. The Light had to come, to break in of his own will, to overpower the dim gloom that enshrouds me. The most I can do is want the Light. To ask for it. To cry out. To lift up my clouded brow and try to adjust my eyes to his presence. Today is as good a day as any to make a start.
A joyful first Sunday of Advent to you all!