Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Modern Love: The forgotten gift of presence

When I read this year’s New York Times’ Modern Love college essay contest winner, I cried. It wasn’t to be unexpected, I suppose, because I cry every time I read the 2008 winners as well. They are heartbreakingly honest and chillingly despairing. But somehow I allowed a spark of hope to form in my heart that maybe, just maybe, this year’s winners would capture a more shining spirit.

And then I read this description of the entries:

When we first held this contest three years ago, the most popular essay topic was hooking up: the “no strings attached” sex that for many wasn’t turning out to be so carefree. The question that seemed to hover over hundreds of such accounts was: How do we get the physical without the emotional?
What a difference three years make. This time the most-asked question was the opposite: How do we get the emotional without the physical? The college hookup may be alive and well, but in these entries the focus shifted to technology-enabled intimacy — relationships that grow and deepen almost exclusively via laptops, webcams, online chats and text messages. Unlike the sexual risk-taking of the hookup culture, this is love so safe that what’s most feared is not a sexually transmitted disease but a computer virus, or perhaps meeting the object of your affection in person.

I felt a knot in my stomach, but I slowly clicked on the winning essay – “Even in Real Life, There Were Screens Between Us.”

As always, the winning essayist, in this case, Caitlin Dewey, articulates herself with exceptional word choice. But the crispness of her words do not indicate beauty in the message.

It’s heartbreaking, really, to read the personal account of a young woman whose relationships are mediated by a screen. It’s not to say that Skype is bad, texting is evil, facebook is unbearable. But to root one’s relationships in a technologically-based foundation ultimately leads toward treating the other as an object, an instrument, a lifeless tool for emotional connection.

So we read Caitlin’s account of g-chats and Skype nights, and eventually her real-life encounter with Will, the young man with whom she had spent hours communicating.

Caitlin philosophizes:

The Internet brings these people together with hash tags and message boards, but it never satisfies them. No matter how much you love someone’s blog or Twitter feed, it isn’t their posts you actually want.

But when it came to real life, for Caitlin and Will, technology was still in the way.

“But after we kissed and ate pizza and went back to his house, we struggled for things to talk about. In real life, Will stared off at nothing while I talked. In real life, he had no questions about the drive or my work or the stuff that waited for me when I went back to school.

He took me out for dinner and read his e-mail while we waited for our food. He apologized profusely, but still checked his Web site’s traffic stats while we sat in his living room.

He took me to a party at his friends’ house where they proceeded to argue for hours about Web design while I sat on a futon and stared at the ceiling, drunk and bored and terribly concerned that I looked thinner online. At points, he grabbed my hand and gave me small, apologetic smiles. It seemed like a strategy game: a constant dance of reaching for me and pulling back, of intimacy and distance, of real life and Internet make-believe.

Although many of us may have not participated in a Skype-only relationship, our society at large deals with many of the same issues, particularly the inability to be truly present to another person.

It’s a lost art – the gift of presence. We think our value lies solely in what we do, what we can accomplish, what we can describe or list or materially give. We’ve forgotten that the very presence of another – just being – is a tremendous gift. And if it’s even remotely presented to us, we get scared and run because to give and receive the gift of presence is to be vulnerable. There is no screen behind which to hide. There is no keyboard on which to pound out 160 characters worth of feelings. There is simply real life.

The key is that real life isn’t so simple after all. It’s quite profound, and beautiful, and possesses its own fullness and depth that can only be responded to with wonder and gratitude.

Somehow we’ve lost that.

We talk to friends and simultaneously text another. We tweet the funniest lines at a party. We update our facebook statuses in the middle of dinner to avoid an awkward silence. We talk about meaningless, superficial things in order to avoid conversations that might make us uncomfortable, conversations that might challenge us.

And we downplay the gift of presence – both our own and of others.

But what would life be like if we looked around us and strove to see others as unique, unrepeatable persons loved into existence by God? People who didn’t have to exist, but who God wanted to exist. People with an unfathomable depth, an incommunicability, a never-ending mystery. If we saw others in this way, then surely we would view any encounter with another – even without conversation or accomplishing anything on a To-Do list or being “productive” – as a gift. Because in that presence of another, I can catch a glimpse of the gift of another, a gift from God, and a gift to me.

It breaks my heart that the Modern Love college essay contest underscores that our society has forgotten the art and gift of presence. If we live this gift in our own lives, however, then slowly it can transform the world.

And in three years when the New York Times sponsors another contest, maybe the essays will echo with hope instead of despair.


  1. Emily - have you read the other essay from this year that's been posted on NYT? http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/fashion/08Modern.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1 "Eating the Forbidden Ham Sandwich" ... I'll give you two guesses whether it's a portrayal of the beauty of chastity, courtship, honor, and married love...

    - Bethany

  2. Yes, I'm going to be writing about that article as well.

  3. This is such a great reflection, Emily, and how true. Thank you! I also recently read that calling people was going out of style and is now considered rude if one doesn't make a phone date ahead of time. How old fashioned I am beginning to feel at this young age! A text can never been a good phone conversation, or even better -- in person!