Article Jun 5, 2017

Authentic community: How online substitutes damage our empathy

I still remember what it felt like when I gave a local town a state-of-the-art police station. I remember the sense of accomplishment one Christmas when dad and I brought to life an underwater city and the rug by the fireplace that became the temporary repair shop needed to rebuild Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder. You probably have your own memories, all provided by the innovation and wondrous simplicity that comes packaged in a box of Legos.

Legos do more than build, don’t they? They transform. Small, colorful, plastic bricks transform dinner tables into architectural drawing boards and living room floors into hardhat zones. Legos bring emotions and feelings that you never thought were possible. They unveil awe and showcase wonder. Each dismantled box temporarily disguises children and adults alike as Frank Lloyd Wright or I. M. Pei. Yet, even in the midst of the seemingly endless worlds that Legos create, there’s a limit to what they can do. They give a sense of the creation and a glimpse into the complex construction of modern world wonders, but they don’t bring authenticity. They can’t—because a package of Legos was meant to do one thing: bring representation, not reality.

No well-educated architect would trade steel for blue and red plastic blocks. No landscape artist would swap out sod with green, bump-filled rectangles. Real works of art, true architectural masterpieces, require more than what Legos can provide. Reality needs a more solid structural foundation; one that Legos simply cannot and were never meant to support.

Sociologists have issued the same conclusions regarding our exhaustive use of social media and technology. Our beloved social media platforms bring us unending entertainment, distraction, meaning and perceived communal connectivity. We’ve come to believe in our online community’s ability to bring forth true, lasting friendship. But, the generation tethered to digital connection and online content sharing more than any other is using online interactions as substitutions for face-to-face relational connectivity.

Even though we’re more connected than ever, the question must be asked: Connected to what, and how?

A loss of emotions

Even though we’re more connected than ever, the question must be asked: Connected to what, and how? The method of connectivity is more important than the breadth of connectivity. In our search for a connected world, we’ve become masterful Lego architects without memories and experiences of steel, iron and concrete. We’ve lost the skill of building true foundations. Over time, we’re losing any knowledge we had of how to live life in person, amongst others and trading it without thought of consequence for a life lived through our online avatars.

This is the focus of long-time MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s 2015 release, Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle shows from the opening pages that our emotional development is suffering great damage due to constant online activity. Called on to consult for one New York middle school, certain teachers inform Turkle of their 12-year-old students who are unable to show signs of empathy, deeply relate and connect with other students. The teachers explain these students show empathy levels that are present in eight-year-old children, who lack the ability to understand and process the emotions of their peers. It’s not that they’re particularly cruel, the teachers say. These children simply don’t know how to process emotional responses and facial expressions because faces don’t accompany the words we type in online communities.

But empathy is a vital ingredient for friendship and basic human interaction. Without it, our relationships remain self-focused. To have a biblical understanding of relationships that are healthy, we must learn to rise above and beyond our own thoughts and feelings. We must have the ability to see life, both its joys and horrors, from the eyes of another. Constructing social foundations via the web moves forward without this basic need, creating a dangerous sinkhole.

Turkle comments, “face to face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do . . . conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.” We’re connected, but we aren’t learning. We aren’t engaging with the thoughts, feelings, emotions and personalities of those close to us. We’re failing to experience grief and sorrow, much less sharing in the grief and sorrow of others. Instead, our responses to life events consist of a simple click or tap. 140 characters. One filtered picture.

This is the new structure of present-day conversation. To this, Turkle explains, “the new conversation is to talk about what’s on our phones. . . . it is not doing the work of the old conversation. As teachers see it, the old conversation taught empathy. These students seem to understand each other less.” We’re losing the ability to wrestle, respond and build. We have a starved interest in putting our hands to work on the real joys of friendship that are much harder and take much more time than one Monday evening sitting in front of a box of Legos. We don’t want the risk of building lasting connections with others or to rise from our comfort zones. We’d rather stay put building temporary monuments without ever getting up and moving away from our screens. We want the benefits of connectivity without the risk of intimacy. But this isn’t the way God designed people to interact. Sherry Turkle continues:

From the early days, I saw that computers offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship and then, as the programs got really good, the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy. Because, face-to-face, people ask for things that computers never do. With people, things go best if you pay close attention and know how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Real people demand responses to what they are feeling.

The more we engage with our screens, the less we truly engage with one another. More seriously, the more we engage online, the less we engage our understanding for how to engage in person. If we lose our ability to empathize and feel and recognize emotions, we lose our ability to know ourselves and one another. When this happens, how can we, as Christians, carry out our gospel mandate to make disciples and share with others the love of Christ? If we can’t experience empathy, how can we engage in gospel expansion? How can we bind up the brokenhearted and release from darkness those imprisoned? We may feel more connected than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we know one another more intimately and deeply than we have before.

Empathy vital for gospel living

If we can’t empathize, how can we bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6)? How will we comfort those that need the comfort we’ve experienced (2 Cor. 1)? How will we feel the urge to share the truth of our past and how Christ has redeemed us (Rom. 5)? How can we heed Paul’s exhortation to live as Christ did and sacrifice as he sacrificed (Phil. 2)?

Yes, we’ll serve where we see the need to serve, but without the ability to understand the hearts and minds of those in our neighborhoods, jobs and communities, to what extent can we bring hope and joy? We must care for those that need caring and meet the needs of those who are in distress and without help. But to do so, we need to practice gospel empathy every day. We need to bear the weight and significance of face-to-face contact, no matter how difficult.

Jesus said the world would experience, know and see him when his followers love and care for one another the way he did us. The world won’t experience the redemption found in Jesus by the way we repost and retweet. Christ says that his children will live as he lived and love as he loved when they know the great extent to which Christ has saved their souls. It’s been said that a gospel that doesn’t sound too good to be true is a gospel that is too small. Rest assured, a gospel that is too small is devoid of empathy.

We’ll love when we know how much God has loved us. We’ll forgive to the extent we know we’ve been forgiven. We’ll serve and sacrifice to the extent that we understand how Christ has served and sacrificed for us. This is what it means to know the beauty of Jesus’ death in our place. When we lose our ability to self-reflect, we lose our ability to embrace the true nature of the gospel and the ability to live its radical nature out amongst others. The key to unlocking gospel transformation that extends down in our bones and out to those around us is true gospel empathy. We put ourselves in the stress, pain, sadness, hurt and hopelessness of others because we know, according to Ephesians 2, we once wandered in darkness.

The more we tether ourselves to our devices, the more untethered we become from our hearts. If we connect with one another but lose our ability to process and show emotions in the process, what good are we? Without empathy, we become the people Isaiah spoke of; honoring God with our lips via our social media posts/rants while our hearts are far from treasuring Christ and his people.

The model of the Incarnation

The way we learn to be with other people and experience life in the fullness of being known by God and others is to look at the example Christ set for us by coming to be with and among us. Paul tells us that Christ sacrificed everything to come be with us, to offer us hope and empower us with a new way of life. This is the beauty of the incarnation. Christ gave up all that he had in order to give all that he had to us, his very enemies. In the words of the church father Athanasius, Christ became what we were so that we could become what he is. Whole. Complete. Righteous. Clean. Connected.

God saw our need and did something about it. He brought great pain on himself to bring us great pleasure. As we reflect on the beauty of Christ’s entrance into our world, we understand what we must do in order to bring his hope into the world of others. Without the presence of technology, Christ showed us the best way forward in our present-day context. We must leave the comforts we experience behind our screens and walk out to meet one another in person. We must let go of our devices in order to grab hold of the hands of others, no matter the cost.