Put your hands up and step away from the screen. That’s the Cliff Notes version of Pope Francis’ message for World Communications Day. Okay, I may be taking some liberties, but that’s definitely the general idea, and I couldn’t agree more, even if I am terribly addicted to all of my various screens.
The pope’s message and related comments from Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, are spot on, and I’m not just saying that because they affirm what I wrote in my book Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship or in numerous columns and articles on parenting, marriage, and life in general.
Real communication, real relationships cannot remain in the virtual world — whether we’re talking about family members living in the same house or dear friends living across the country. That important truth was at the heart of Walking Together, and it’s something we have to take seriously as digital communication rapidly replaces any and almost all face-to-face or verbal communication in our day-to-day interactions.
I can tell you that on any given day at my home office, I may “talk” to dozens of people via Facebook, Twitter, texting, and email, but I don’t actually speak or visit with anyone outside of my immediate family. And, even then, all five of us are often glued to our various screens at home. Just this afternoon Olivia, my 14-year-old, was texting me from the dressing room at H&M. I was not at home; I was standing about 20 feet away in the store. She has also been known to text me from the chair two feet away on our backyard deck. Clearly we need an intervention, so I know of what I speak.
Although virtual communication allows us to stay connected to friends and relatives who might otherwise be lost to us, real communication has to be intentional these days or it threatens to disappear into the digital void.
“Today the modern media, which are an essential part of life for young people in particular, can be both a help and a hindrance to communication in and between families. The media can be a hindrance if they become a way to avoid listening to others, to evade physical contact, to fill up every moment of silence and rest, so that we forget that ‘silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist'” Pope Francis writes in his message, “Communicating the Family: A Privileged Place of Encounter with the Gift of Love.”
Archbishop Celli, during a related presentation, added: “The risk is that I’m an expert in technology but I am not an expert in humanity. So it’s a capacity of listening, of being open, of sharing….Today fathers and mothers are involved in so many things, they are so busy, but who is teaching the kids? (Who is teaching them) to be present in a human way and to have a real dialogue, real human communication with others, if we are not teaching them?” he asked.
Back when I wrote Walking Together, I focused on the fact that our first friendships are those we share with our parents and siblings. In our childhood home we learn how to communicate — for better or for worse, and what we learn there serves as the foundation for future relationships and communication. Think of your family growing up, your family now. Is the communication method and style different? What about friendships? Do you still get together with friends in person or talk on the phone, or is it all done via email and texting and Facebook?
In the opening pages of Walking Together, I address the same problems and concerns Pope Francis raises in this year’s World Communications Day message. Here’s what I wrote back in 2010:
“The very technology that is supposed to make our lives so much easier and so much more integrated is, in actuality, cutting us off from face-to-face contact, leaving us with mostly virtual relationships that may supply superficial satisfaction but never feed our deeper need for something that touches the heart and soul.
“In some ways it would seem impossible to be isolated in this modern-day world. Even on vacation, we are usually plugged into a mind-numbing array of people, places, and social networking websites that allow us to occupy every free second of our harried lives. The problem is that despite all our ‘favorites” and ‘buddies’ out there in the land of plenty, we are hungry for real connection.”
What’s one thing you can do today to make your daily communication and connection with family and friends more meaningful, more real? I dare you to write a letter — a handwritten, on-stationery, take-it-to-the-post-office letter. Whoever is on the receiving end will be thrilled, trust me.
I’ll be talking about the importance of real and regular communication on the Morning Air Show on Relevant Radio Friday, Jan. 30, at 9:30 a.m. Eastern time. In the New York metropolitan area, tune in at 1460 AM, or listen live online by clicking HERE.
For more information on Walking Together, click HERE.
For the full text of the pope’s World Communications Day message, click HERE.