I met Shirley today.  She’s been watching me preach on video for nearly a year now, but we’ve never even caught an ‘in-person’ glimpse of each other all this time.  She greeted me today, introduced herself, and explained how she’s enjoyed all the videos.  I gave her a slight pat on the back, and suddenly our relationship was no longer disembodied. 

We are just finishing the “Year of Disembodied Relationships,” thanks to the pandemic forcing us into Zoom, Facetime, and other forms of video-conferencing.  We have been saturated with video images of each other, the modern cousin of graven images.  Like a false idol, the video image can only give us a facade of each other’s humanity.  Both graven images and video images mask and deceive far more than they reveal.  

An embodied relationship allows you to smell the person, size them up, read their body language, get too close, slap them, hand them a cup of coffee, give them a helping hand, loan them a handkerchief, know if they are getting antsy, whisper in a guy’s ear that his zipper is down…  An embodied relationship allows you to hug your grandson, read a book while your granddaughter sits on your lap, figure out if your mother is telling you the truth about her health…    

In the last year I’ve sat alone in my own house, stared onto my computer screen, and done the following:  tried to imitate a Yoga instructor, met with my dermatologist, consulted with my counselor, served communion to my parishioners, attended reunions with old friends, gathered all the children and grandchildren on Christmas Day, met and conducted meetings with my new parishioners in Salem, and participated in my Friday afternoon writers’ group.  I have no idea whether any of them were even wearing pants at the time, except for the Yoga instructor, who appeared decent.     

I preached over 6000 "embodied" sermons before I retired, always to people in the same room with me, where I could watch them try to stay awake, feel their boredom, hear their stomachs growl, and smell their perfume.   But in my farewell sermon last June, no one was in the room.  Jordan (my recorder guy) set up the equipment and walked out while I preached.  No physical bodies were ever subjected to the preaching of that last sermon. Nearly everyone who watched it knew me, but our relationships had become disembodied.  

I gave a disembodied farewell to my congregation in Mattoon and moved to Urbana, near old friends, to try and replace our former, embodied habits with new disembodied relationships. It is a fumbling enterprise.

Granted, Zoom has a couple things going for it.  Less travel for meetings and business is good for the environment.  And videoconferencing has brought an efficiency to my work, increasing the number of gatherings and meetings I can check off my list.  But it’s no way to make friends or deepen relationships.  It has no physicality or real presence.  

Pen pals have more going for them than Zoom pals.  When I was in college and had my first girlfriend, we saw each other every weekend and wrote each other letters each Tuesday.  We were apart more than we were together.  But letters are material, tangible, part of an embodied relationship.  Since we were apart so much, I think I spent as much time fondling the letters as I did the girl.  And when she dumped me (maybe I didn’t fondle her enough?) I tore all her letters up and threw them in the trash.  Even the breakup was embodied, corporeal.  

I severely dislike meeting with my Friday Writers’ Group on Zoom.  About a third of the group now consists of new members whom I’ve never met.  I have no idea if they’re taller than me, smell bad, slouch, strut...  More importantly, I cannot do the nuanced work of critiquing a friend’s craft if I cannot ascertain how my critique is being received, which I do by reading non-verbal signals.  At our last meeting, one guy was in the middle of critiquing another guy’s short story, when suddenly the critic’s home internet failed.  In mid-sentence his voice stopped and his image froze on our screens.  It seemed as though the one receiving the critique had sent a curse through cyberspace and killed his critic.  If I am in the room with you, I can always tell when to shut up.

I always had an embodied relationship with my own grandparents.  Out of respect for them, I won’t go into details here.  But my own grandchildren have known me only in a disembodied relationship this past year.  Sean (5) gets bored with a disembodied grandpa in about one minute.  For Isobel (with the normal attention span of a two and a half year old) a disembodied grandpa is merely a toy.  She uses FaceTime with me as a means of manipulating her parents.  If she gets hurt and starts to cry, she’ll plead with her mom to call “Grandpa Mike.”.  Her parents report that she also eats better if I’m on the phone.  But she can’t relate with me nearly as well as she does with Fitz, her pet dog.   Maple (2) looks at me like I’m from outer space.  She isn’t allowed to watch TV or computer screens, and so when my face shows up on her dad’s iPhone, she just glares, half suspicious and half amused.

A study by a group at Stanford University recently found (see the April 10 article in the Economist entitled, “Virtual Insanity”) that we spend almost half our Zoom time looking at our own image.  That’s like spending a full hour looking at yourself in a mirror over the course of a two hour meeting. How is that not idiotic?   

It also noted that during a Zoom meeting, everyone’s face is the equivalent of 19 inches away from our own face.  The researchers noted that our brains are hard wired to expect either a kiss or a punch when someone gets that close.  This of course, means that another part of our brain has to work overtime subconsciously trying to disabuse ourselves of those expectations. 

Due to short delays in transmission, we also get the (maybe) false sense that people aren’t paying attention to us, or they can’t hear us, or they don’t like us.  It only takes a 1.2 second delay in another person’s response time to set off those anxieties.  The result? People speak 15% louder when they are on Zoom.  

Add the fact that the brain is working overtime searching for all the missing non-verbal information from our Zoom collaborators, and no wonder we are exhausted.

So, all this is to say, to all my friends:  get your vaccine, put on your pants, stop ogling yourself on your computer screen, and let’s get together, safely.  I miss your bodies!

Mike