Isolation in Company

Yesterday I was privileged, through the miracle of wireless technology, to attend a Lutheran seminary class that I was supposed to have taken in person this semester…the professor has shown me great compassion by allowing me to participate in the class through the meeting software Adobe Connect.

It’s a simple sign-on procedure, and to my surprise, there were no initial technical glitches. I could see the professor and the A/V screen behind him, on which he projected various course materials. Good sound quality was a surprise, and while the professor and my classmates could not see or hear me, thankfully, as fastidious personal grooming has kind of flown out the window lately, I could participate by typing comments just like any other online chat. I could also click on an ‘I have a question’ icon: a little person with a raised hand, when I wanted clarification on an item.

So for two hours each Monday, I will sit at my computer and hear lectures for this class. I will submit my work electronically, and even for the memory recitation component (Creeds, Confessional statements) I can Skype or FaceTime my teaching assistant. This truly is a miracle, and another proof of human ingenuity. Especially because it prevents me from delaying my ELCA internship by an entire year, as this class is a pre-internship requirement…God is indeed very, very good.

This miraculous connectivity really speaks to me as I enter my 8th week of recovery from foot surgery. I’ve enjoyed my ‘alone time’ spent in the house by myself 4 days a week, because I didn’t realize just how exhausted I was: not only from the surgery, but also from the stress and frenzy of three and a half years of graduate school. I’ve been able to reduce the size of the stack of ‘must read books’ by half. I’ve caught up on movies I missed via Netflix, and feel that I can now participate in conversations about a few really good TV series that I enjoy. But with the healing of body and soul comes increasing frustration at my isolation and inability to step outside, to drive myself where I want to go for no apparent reason, and that old longing is back–at heart, I’m a very sociable person, and I crave conversation. Even with strangers, to the frustration of my poor son.

So I really looked forward to connecting to the Seminary class yesterday, in the way that many of us become excited about the “first day of school.” I could be part of a community without leaving the house–there would be conversation again, learning and sharing.

Yet having never taken an online class, and certainly having never taken a class via webcam, my excitement was quickly dampened: five minutes into the introduction to the class by the professor, the host computer crashed, and I could neither see what was happening, nor hear what was being said. There I sat, furiously typing “I HAVE NO AUDIO OR VIDEO…”  No reply. Still no reply. Four minutes passed. Was I missing some critical explanation about assignment due dates? Did the professor realize what had happened, and that I was relegated to Castaway Status on my Virtual Classroom Island?

FLASH. The professor’s face reappeared, and shortly thereafter I could hear him speaking. The Tech Guy typed me a ‘sorry, computer crashed’ message in the online chat box, and we continued. He also responded that the session was being recorded, so I could access missed content at a future time…whew.

Everything worked quite well for about 90 minutes. Syllabus review, check. Clarification of the professor’s vision and focus, check. Review of assignment deadlines, check & deep sigh of relief at not having missed anything. Time for the other 15 students to stand in front of the camera and introduce themselves to me: very strange, because many of them were camera-wary and their faces were cut off, but a nice gesture which I appreciated. I heard the professor say, “Now let’s turn the camera on Monica…”

Blank screen. No sound. I couldn’t even type anything into the chat line. A black box appeared on my computer screen: “WARNING! Your host has disconnected from this meeting. You will be removed from this site in 2 minutes.”

Well, not only did I apparently break the camera with my lack of personal grooming, but there must also be a time limit on how long we physically undesirable humans are allowed to participate. In the silence I waited…surely the Tech Guy will reconnect me…surely I will get a message indicating that they are furiously working to reinstate me into the conversation…

Awkward silence continued…awkward only because I was unclear whether I should exit the software, or continue to sit there for another ten minutes until the class officially ended. Not wishing to be rude by signing off early, I waited, albeit impatiently, in the hope that I would be reconnected and thus affirmed in my belief that I, as a fellow seminarian, mattered.

That did not happen. At the official class end time, I clicked out of Connect and sighed in frustration at having been stranded again by a technological shipwreck. About an hour later, the Tech Guy emailed me apologetically to explain that the computer crashed again, and that I hadn’t “missed much of import.” Later, the class TA emailed me to apologize, and to assure me that in future, he will participate in the Connect chat via his iPad during class, so he will ‘see what I see’ and be able to advise the professor of any technical problems that arise. He also invited me to post my bio in the class chat room, so everyone can ‘meet’ me. I had not been forgotten, at all…even in my perceived electronic isolation.

This entire incident brings to mind that isolation pervades our lives: we inadvertently or intentionally cut each other off at the pass through our anger, resentment, guilt or failure to relieve human suffering. We isolate ourselves from one another, and from God, even in the midst of the madding crowd, and by this crowd, I mean the Holy Trinity.

God our Creator, Christ our Redeemer, and Holy Spirit our Guide and Comforter are always with us. Always. Every single second. We are never alone. Yet how many times have we behaved as if we are indeed alone, cut off, abandoned and forgotten?

We substitute the world’s values and definition of ‘company’ for God’s. In the isolation of our actions or inaction, it is purely our choice: we can either succumb to self-pity and give in to feelings of sadness and abandonment, or we can choose to remember that God, Christ and Spirit envelope us, constantly. The world may dash our hopes and trample our bodies, crushing the joy out of our lives and dreams, but only if we allow this to happen. The God of Infinite Possibility does not fail us, nor abandon us, period.

Jesus reminds us that we are isolated only by our own choice, saying in Matthew 7:7-8, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” 

The technological door of WiFi connectivity was briefly closed to me, and I failed to knock again, preferring to use the worlds definition of abandonment to believe that I had been forgotten. Yet our good and merciful God revealed God’s grace through emails from the Tech Guy and the TA, who reached out to reassure me that I am neither estranged, nor a stranger. I am loved. I belong. I am a valuable member of God’s Holy Community, whether or not the computer crashes and the signal fades.

The trick for us is to remember the cross of baptism marked on our foreheads: invisible, but tangible nonetheless. Next time you feel abandoned, or disappointed, or isolated by the world and its false promises, trace the mark of your baptismal cross on your forehead, and trust that God, Christ and Spirit wrap you in their great embrace of holy love.

Until next time, be at peace,

Monica

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