In today’s culture, it’s easy to access different sources of world news. In fact, ours is a life lived in digital proximity to one another. Through the use of technology, we are exposed to all kinds of tragic and hopeful events from remote places. The same holds true for local experiences. More than ever, we encounter one another through our social media profiles and digital personalities.
At the same time, digital and virtual proximity brings significant challenges and limitations. While many have access to computers and internet services, the digital divide is still a reality. For many, this digital divide also illustrates social, economic, cultural and health disparities. We see how the urban and rural poor are negatively impacted by the lack of access to the different technological advances. Moreover, we also know that having access does not mean usability, since many lack the necessary technical and digital skills.
Beyond these limitations, we also find serious interpersonal challenges. Our digital nearness to one another has not always yielded fruitful outcomes. For some people, the digital and virtual landscapes have left them feeling more isolated and distant. In other cases, virtual encounters and interactions have brought forth all kinds of vitriolic words and actions, forcing us to regress more to tribal instincts and in-group mentality. Ironically, the tool designed to bring us together is often used to draw us apart.
But this stark reality and difficult predicament is not the full story. There is a silver lining. Our digital proximity to one another also brings the opportunity to engage and experience more intentionally the virtue of solidarity. I suspect that many have been moved to acts of justice and compassion by virtual interactions. What otherwise would have remained unknown to us because of physical distance now finds a place near to our hearts through virtual means.
Spiritually, however, we are discovering that these digital and virtual encounters leave us longing for more in our lives. As is the case in our in-person interactions, we know that nearness to something or someone doesn’t always means caring for it or them. Many times, our personal biases, prejudices and fears prevent us from knowing our neighbors or even having more meaningful interactions with those in our immediate professional and social circles.
In the midst of these interpersonal challenges, our common experience teaches us that the work of empathy requires us to be more fully engaged with one another, allowing time and space for our thoughts, feelings and actions to find proper direction. In a culture that is often pressed for time or busy, it’s easy to become indifferent or callous to events and people around us.
Our faith never tires of teaching us the path of compassion and solidarity (Genesis 4:9; Luke 10:25-37). In the Gospel, we are directed to follow the way of mutual care and communion, especially with those who are often marginalized and forgotten (Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23). And, in the person and actions of Jesus, for example, we see what care for one another entails (John 13:1-20).
In times when we are tempted to grow distant from others and to think only of our own good and wellbeing, may we remember and draw closer to the words of Jesus Christ spoken to Peter: “Do you love me?” “Feed my Sheep” (John 21:17). And, as we enter this Lenten season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, may our virtual and in-person nearness to one another motivate us to live more fully our mutual service and love in Christ.
F. Javier Orozco
First published February 18, 2021 in the St. Louis Review