Love on the Internet

Last weekend, I was ambushed. An individual with whom I have corresponded for a few years via email about philosophical and theological issues suggested we start IMing. Sounded good to me. But what I was expecting was some real-time conversation about the same sort of stuff, but with a chance maybe to become friends with this correspondent.

Something like that happened many years ago with a friend I made on the old, now defunct Dostoevsky discussion group. We were involved in heated debates about existentialism and Christianity, about authenticity and doubt, you know–about Dostoevsky. Well, the conversations tended towards non-Dostoevskian themes, so we decided to carry them to personal emails, and then later to IMs–and, eventually, to telephone.

This developed into a good friendship, which, alas, has since gone the way of the buffalo.

In any case, the point here is that the friendship developed like friendships do–in steps, and gradually.

The lesson is that just because the world runs faster now, with internet, microwaves, drive-thrus, and supersonic travel, it simply does not follow that we can speed up human relationships. After all, we didn’t upgrade, only our living conditions did.

Back to last weekend.

Get the scene, first. I add this acquaintance to my IM list. Now, I’m grading quizzes for my students, trying to concentrate on how I’m going to teach the next part of the unit, and also (yes, I academically multitask constantly) thinking on when I should do that next paragraph of German translation prep for my upcoming exam. Not to mention the fact that I am actively avoiding studying logic or doing dissertation prep. In any case, it’s Thanksgiving break, and I’ve gotten nothing done. It’s Saturday, though, so its really time for me to get my little tailfeathers back into the chicken dance, so I’m buckling down. Then, the second I modify my list, I receive IMs. So, thinking this will be like other IM conversations, I reply.

Since I’m grading quizzes, I figure I can have a causal chat and grade simultaneously. Alas.

Instead of wanting to get to know me on a more personal level, instead of wanting to continue on with the kinds of conversations we’ve had, this acquaintance declared undying love for me.

I was stunned.

Here’s why. First, I’ve never even seen his face, not even in a picture. He figured, well, we can fix that, go to this link where there’s a distant shot of my profile. So I go, but it’s too far away to see anything. The point of this is that our relationship thus far is not by any stretch of the term ‘intimate.’ Certainly, discussions of philosophy and theology are personal, but they are abstract in a sense–the writer need not make herself or himself vulnerable. And via the internet–there is no need for trust or trustworthiness. The internet is quite impersonal. All I know of him is how he’s presented himself to me via email (and now, via IM, and–since this incident–what I’ve discovered by Googling him–but as I note in the next couple paragraphs, this is still not much).

Second, He doesn’t know me at all. Sure, he’s had access to my web site, to my blog, and to emails. But thinking you know me by knowing about me is such folly. Think of how many atheists read the Bible and study Christianity under a careful microscope. Sure, they know more about God than maybe you or I do. But they don’t know God. And in fact, this analogy even breaks down because you can know God via experiencing only his word. My correspondent certainly has experienced my words, but I’m not God, and my words aren’t life-breathing. To experience an embodied created being requires that you experience them empirically, directly. The IM access was to be a step in that direction–where we could become perhaps more than email correspondents, where we might become friends like my Dostoevsky colleague had before.

We all know that people are different in print than they are in person. Some are so because they misrepresent themselves, others because, well, because when writing one has more of a chance to think and prepare what one says. We come out looking more polished in print. And whatever this acquaintance of mine knows, he’s fallen in love with a shiny BJ who only represents a fragment–and a very small fragment at that–of the person I am. He’s fallen in love with some idea of me that just isn’t real.

Now so far, that’s kinda sweet. It’s been a long time since somebody declared his love for me. But when I tried to slow down the confusing, bewildering conversation, he only became all the more insistent. He asked me how long I’d been interested in him.

In philosophy circles, there’s this running joke about loaded questions–“when did you quit beating your wife?” Any answer to such a loaded question affirms a commitment to the unstated but necessary presupposition. And any attempt to deny that presupposition is usually interpreted as dishonest. Regardless, the asking of such a question is intellectually unfair, even unkind. So “how long have you been interested in me” is, as this kind of question, equally so. I replied I’d never even had the concept until the moment he brought it up.

But such a reply then makes it available for him to assume that my now holding a concept is equivalent to my endorsing it–like I really have beaten my wife in the past. But no, I’m not interested in any way more than conceptual. Sure, in the most abstract theoretical fashion, I can assent to the logical possibility. It’s not impossible, strictly speaking, for us to hook up. The universe can continue. But on a personal level–though not impossible, it’s extremely unlikely. It’s unlikely because my acquaintance has not only not shown me he loves me, but he’s shown me that he has no concept at all of what love really is.

After pressing me and pressing me, he finally gave me an out, and I was able to politely leave the conversation. Of course, by now, I was totally out of any grading mindset. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and I was quite freaked out. Some of you remember, some years ago, when I was stalked by a so-called “Christian” from my church, who eventually attacked me. He constantly used Christianese and high-sounding concepts to manipulate and confuse me. Well, I’m not so easily manipulated or confused, but because of this experience (among many others), I’ve developed a highly sensitive filter towards confusion-informed rhetoric and emotional advances. The moment I was given the out, I left my computer, and called my friend Anna to process what in the heck had happened. In the meantime, I could see IMs still coming on the computer screen across the room. I left the room, and maybe 45 minutes later, when I returned to my study a bit more composed, I found he was still IMing and emailing me. “I know you’re reading this,” he wrote. And why wouldn’t I reply? Pause. Then another plea for response or another statement of his undying love. Stalking me via the internet.

And I know you’re reading this post too–watching to see how I’ll react.

So as soon as I could, I blocked him from IMing me, in much the same way I surrounded myself with policemen friends back when L followed me everywhere I went–work, home, the store, you name it. Back when L would call me and let it ring and ring, then as soon as my machine picked up, hang up and call again–repeatedly from 10 pm to as early as 5 am. And when I didn’t answer, he’d come the three blocks from his place to mine to stand and ring my doorbell, with an endless buzz. I had so many nights of buzz, buzz, buzz for a couple hours, then a blessed ten minutes of silence, then ring ring ring of the phone–all night long. Buzz buzz–pause–ring ring–pause–buzz buzz again.

And he always told me that I was the most amazing Christian he knew. That he wanted to be around me, that he needed me in his life, that he appreciated the Godly influence I had, that I was inspiring, and that he was sure he loved me. It all started because I was a leader in our Bible Study group, and because we all did so many things together, I made up a phone list for ease of communication. L called, and as a member of the group, I spoke with him. But he interpreted that in a twisted fashion, and the next thing I knew, I couldn’t escape him at church, home, work, or play. He was everpresent. And I was his terrified, cornered prisoner.

Now I’m not saying that my current situation is identical to the former one. It isn’t. But there are very important parallels that merit discussion. The first is the selfishness of the so-called lover. L never loved me, he wanted me to be some part of his life on his terms. He had an idea of who and what I was–as a brand new member of the group, he only saw this chick singing in front on Tuesday nights. His idea included him being in control of whatever ‘relationship’ might develop. The second is the misuse of Christian concepts. I believe with all my heart that L’s misuse was manipulative and with evil intent. He had attacked people before–he ‘confessed’ it to me. My current correspondent may not have such intentions–in fact, I seriously doubt that he does. But he is confused nonetheless.

He is confused about the nature of love.

So here is what love is. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

And here’s how that cashes out in contrast to what my correspondent has shown me he understands.

  • Love is patient, not demanding an answer this very moment about what his beloved believes. Love can wait forever for the beloved to respond. Love does not press the beloved into a corner, because it has a desperate need for knowledge.
  • Love is kind, which not only includes being polite, but also understanding that the beloved is worthy of kindness, as an end unto herself, as Kant writes.
  • Love does not boast. You know, Christians are masters at boasting by self-deprecation. We passive-aggressively boast. Love does not puff itself up by making the beloved feel spiritually inadequate, by laying holy-sounding but selfish ideas on the beloved in an attempt to get her to do what he wants–even if that is just to IM back. Love does not exert effort to make himself appear “more humble” than others, in an attempt to make the other do anything. Humility just is. True recognition of a fault manifests itself in apology, not observation with a request for assent.
  • Love is not rude. I touched on this above, when discussing how my correspondent behaved.
  • Love is not self-seeking. Love cares about the beloved, not himself. If you truly love somebody, you don’t set the terms, but live for the other. When two people love each other, each one is focusing on what the other rejoices in, on what makes the other feel comfortable, on what makes the other feel safe. Love is not about what the lover wants, but about how the lover wants the beloved to feel as if she’s the center of his world, her shining out even if his star were to fade. Love is then a still, small voice, not a hurricane that sweeps the beloved away like an object to be crushed by the gale of his passion. That’s selfishness–top 40-music, TV primetime-defined, emotional lust. When it’s all about what the lover feels and not about what the beloved feels because of how the lover treats her–that’s not love.

You get the idea. Sure, this characterization of love is difficult (maybe even impossible) to maintain. But I know people who love each other, and their relationships are characterized by true humility. When they hurt each other, they apologize. And I have never known them to force themselves–even emotionally–on those they claim to love. In fact, they don’t force themselves on anyone. This, this is love. Love is restrained. Love is gentle. Love is trustworthy. (see Gal. 5:22-23.)

And this is why I am not interested in having any relationship with my correspondent–because not only does he not love me, but his behavior shows that he doesn’t understand what love is at all. He doesn’t want to get to know me on my terms, but on his. He’s got an idea of who I am, and I am now expected to meet that standard, even to move to where he is, since he’s decided that that is where God has called me (interpreting his own longings as God’s will). And that frightens me.

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