If you're not in person, you're not real

Global Sisters Report has enjoyed a partnership with A Nun’s Life Ministry since our site went live in April 2014. Srs. Maxine Kollasch and Julie Vieira share audio clips every week from their popular podcasts and now take turns writing a monthly column. Drawing on their experiences of online presence and using a lens of Scripture, they each will explore how social media offers new ways of witnessing Gospel values.

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The word "virtual" in relation to online activity has given the internet and social media a bad name when it comes to relationships. When talking about online interaction, we call it "virtual" in order to distinguish it from face-to-face interaction, which we call "real." It is common to say things like, "Oh, yes, Tamika is my friend on Facebook and in real life," suggesting that Tamika's presence online is somehow unreal.

While in fact there is some "virtual-ness" to the online world — games, for example, that create simulated worlds — the people who are engaging with the online world are very much real. There is always a person behind the avatar. Our fear of course is that we can't always be sure that people are who they say they are. But this is a problem in the offline world as well. What we do online is not alien to our own experience in relationships, whether they are face-to-face or via a device such as a telephone or letter.

When things are defined strictly — for example, only "real" encounters happen face-to-face — it can happen that anything that is not within that definition is considered "less than," second-rate, and not good enough. There's a great parable that speaks precisely to this point: "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."

Throughout that movie, racecar driver Ricky Bobby, played by Will Ferrell, struggles with something his estranged dad had said to him when Ricky was a child: "If you're not first, you're last." Ricky took that to heart and lived by that motto, accepting nothing less than winning as success. Over time, it damaged his understanding of himself and his relationships with those whom he loved and with whom he worked. Ricky goes through an epic midlife crisis that only Will Ferrell can pull off and finds, in the end, that there is another way to live, one that includes many ways of succeeding.

Now, we don't all need to go through a flaming car crash or share a confined space with a cougar as Ricky Bobby did in his search for a new way to understand success. Here are a few things that can help us as we reshape our language of virtual and real in terms of connecting with people online.

1. Face-to-face presence and online presence are not in competition with one another. They are simply two different ways to engage with others. One does not replace the other because each has its own unique gifts of fostering relationship.

2. Presence is more than physical proximity; it has to do with a felt sense of connection. We've all had the experience of standing right in front of someone and feeling no connection at all because we or they are distracted or simply not tuned in.

3. We are always more than any snapshot, phone conversation, or dinner date can ever fully communicate. If the only words we ever had from Jesus were, "Get behind me, Satan," (Matthew 16:32) we'd have a pretty skewed view of him!

As we go about this day, let us be conscious of all the ways we experience people. And, in each of our activities — online, face-to-face, telephone, letter — may we be open to the many and varied expressions of the very real presence and gift of each person.

[Julie Vieira is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, and co-founder of A Nun’s Life Ministry, which was founded on the Internet in 2006 and is present at aNunsLife.org and in many social media.]

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