I was admiring my hairdresser’s ability to multi-task. As she dealt with my unruly hair, she told me animatedly of her recent Face Time encounter with friends in the UK whom she’d worked with. “They were shocked,” she said, “when another friend arrived to join me. We gave each other a hug, as we usually do, and our UK friends were astounded. They couldn’t believe that we could hug each other.”
We talked further about how the pandemic was creating a cultural shift in personal interactions. I told her about my niece who was so used to social distancing, even with her flatmate in the small kitchen of their flat, that it became automatic. The two women wouldn’t talk to each other in case they passed Covid 19 on to each other through droplets in the air.
My niece said she had become paranoid about possibly catching the virus, because she was wanting to visit her frail German grandmother before leaving for New Zealand, and she also needed a negative Covid 19 test before flying. After she arrived, and went through two weeks in quarantine in Auckland on her own, she flew to Christchurch and found it so strange and unnerving to be greeted with hugs from maskless family members, who were totally unconcerned about social distancing. It was only then she realised how much she had been affected by a pandemic mindset.
Substitutes for personal interactions
It’s not only the pandemic that is affecting our social interactions. Young people are spending so much time on their phones and on social media that taking time to develop good friendships through face to face contact is being undermined. Many adults too are so busy, juggling work, family activities and commuting, that sustaining supportive face to face relationships with wider family and friends, is becoming a luxury.
At more extreme levels, the use of dating apps such as Tinder, becomes a short-cut way to find a sexual partner, without the challenges of building a relationship.
For young guys particularly, viewing porn can become their way of finding out how to engage with a woman sexually, without all the pitfalls of trying to relate to each other. (There’s also the understanding in some circles that sharing a kiss, is seen as being intimate; engaging in sex together is regarded as not being so personal.) Dating is not much more than hooking up, and it’s not about getting to know another person.
Knowing – and being known
We are designed to know, and be known, through face to face personal contact. Our body language, our words, our gestures, our silences, our emotional expressions of all kinds, can only be experienced when we are in the company of each other.
Babies too begin to learn about people by relating face to face with their mothers. When they are born, the focal length of their eyesight does not extend any further than to their mother’s face, when they are at the breast. Interacting with an adult is crucial for the baby’s development; it’s how their brains develop, their emotional needs begin to be met and it’s how their personalities begin to emerge.
Our use of technology for Face Time and Zoom meetings goes some way towards encouraging personal interactions, but technology still can’t make up for the knowledge – and delight – that comes from being in the presence of others. (Witness the joy of many airport reunions of people who have previously been kept apart by the pandemic.)
‘Gazing into each other’s eyes…’
At an even deeper level, face to face togetherness is fundamental to the marriage relationship. Lovers long to be together; other forms of communication are not sufficient. And face to face is essential for everyday togetherness, as well as for intimacy at the deepest level.
A friend once commented on one of the differences between human beings and animals. “Sexually,” she said, “we are designed to be together face to face. Animals aren’t.” When sex is understood as the consummation of a relationship, of the ‘connection’ that already exists between a man and a woman, then any other way of sexually relating is reductionist; it is much less than what humans are designed for.
Earlier English versions of Scripture when referring to sexual relations used the word, ‘know.’ For example, “And Adam knew his wife…” Knowing a spouse ‘face to face’ and knowing them intimately, physically, are of the same order. The two are ‘one flesh’. When sex is divorced from such personal knowledge and commitment, it becomes far less than it is intended to be, and is reduced to an animalistic level.
Knowing God – and being known
There is a sense in which at a profoundly deep level, we are affected spiritually if we aren’t able to relate to others. We are personal beings, able to know and be known, but will we be able to know God if we are stunted in our relationships with others? How much will God’s kingdom – which is a kingdom of right relationships – be able to grow here on earth if we can’t relate properly to each other? It may be of course that the church will provide a community for many, if it is providing opportunities for relationship.
Then ultimately, when the time comes, we will find that we will see God face to face, and know God, as fully as we are known. How wonderful!
In the meantime though, the loss of face to face interaction, whether it is one of the unintended results of a pandemic, a consequence of the substitution of technology, or simply the effect of busyness, is likely to have profound effects on our Western civilisation, and on some sectors in particular. We already are reaping some of the consequences of an individualistic, atomised society – loneliness, alienation, and lack of community. How much more will these tendencies be reinforced in days to come? What can we do about it?
Liz Hay rejoices in living in a beautiful part of God’s creation in a high country mountain basin; and she also rejoices in hearing stories of God at work in people’s lives. One of her favourite activities is reading fascinating biographies that illustrate the wonderful ways God works uniquely with each person.