After dinner almost every night, my friend Bobby used to come over. He didn’t knock any longer. He just walked in, as the door was unlocked. We walked through our neighborhood to a corner store, bought a Pepsi, and walked back. There was more to it of course. In the early years, there were pretend stories about being superheroes, imagining ourselves saving the world from certain destruction. In the later years, there were interactions with a host of characters that peopled the streets of our neighborhood --- bullies, girls, old men, and dogs --- some to be avoided, some to be sought, and conversations about school, and girls, and life beyond high school, and girls, and so it went. But every night, when we turned the corner onto Surry from Fernwood and stood outside my house for a moment finishing our conversation, he went home, and I went home, and that was it. . . until school the next morning, that is.
In my early working years, I used to work late at times. I even went into work on Saturdays on occasion, finishing a brief I was writing, catching up. But when I left the building and went home, I left work behind. I had no cell phone, no email, no pager --- no connection but the telephone on the wall to link me to the other world of work. When I came home, I was done: work was another place, another time.
In most respects, we have lost the distinctions of place. In her book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Maggie Jackson studied the behavior of families, looking specifically at how much time they spent physically with one another, noting in one sad (to me) finding that when fathers came home from work, “children rarely greeted [them], and often didn’t even look up when the dad entered house.” Her conclusion is an indication that distinctions between places have broken down in a 24/7 world:
Perhaps because we virtually check in with one another all day, the act of moving across a physical threshold naturally becomes devoid of meaning. In a placeless world, who needs to acknowledge the return to a location? Moreover, a boundaryless world means that coming home doesn’t signal the end of the workday any more than being on vacation is a time of pure relaxation or being under one roof marks the beginning of unadulterated family time. The physical and virtual worlds are always with us, singing a siren song of connection, distraction, and options. We rarely are completely present in one moment or for another. Presence is something naked, permeable, and endlessly spliced.
I’m not sure I appreciate all of what is signaled by such a loss, but perhaps one thing is a lack of appreciation of the rich diversity of the physical environment around us. As titillating as the virtual world can be, there is a bland superficiality that settles in as you surf and skim along the surface of life. After all the emails and twits and postings on Facebook, we may wake up one day and realize we could have been having a real conversation with a person sitting right in front of us in a real place. We forget how much that matters when we have instant access to what a person is doing and thinking right now. We have bodies and faces for a reason. We need to see each other, spend time with one another, keep distinctions between here and there.
In some ways it is difficult to draw instruction for the current day from simply looking at the life of Jesus in an agrarian, pre-technological society. And yet the forecast for the new heavens and new earth is a promise of a physical reality of streets, rivers, rooms, and houses, of a God who says we will “see his face. . . (Rev. 22:4). It’s a post-technological society when places will be places, people will be distinct, here will be here and there will be there, when our own backyard and a long conversation with a friend will be enough to preoccupy us for eternity.