“Not here/Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.”
– T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Why is it fun to know what other people are doing?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot recently, as I get ever more used to knowing what the people in my life (both my present life, and my life of decades past) are doing every minute of the day. My friend Israel, who I went to college with and haven’t seen for twenty-some years, is vacationing in northern California with his two adopted sons. My friend Glen, meanwhile, who used to work at Guideposts with me, just got up from his desk at his new place of employ, TV Guide, to go down to the street to buy a bagel.

Knowledge of these events, and countless others like them, comes to me courtesy of Facebook, which I joined recently and which I now, like so many other people, am somewhat addicted to.

My attachment to the site has been greeted with disappointed by a couple of my friends. Especially surprising to them is my willingness not only to join the site, but to contribute to it--talking about what I’m up to, changing my profile picture regularly, making comments about what other people I know are doing, and even taking the site’s quizzes that reveal such things as which cartoon character, or which poet, I’m most like (Donald Duck and Sylvia Plath, if you’re curious).

I think the main reason so many of my friends are surprised that I’m enjoying the site is because Facebook stands for everything I distrust about the internet. Though I use it all the time (and, of course, even write for it), my feeling about the internet has always been that at heart it is a substitute for something else.

A substitute for what, exactly? In a nutshell, for what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once called “the whole so-called spirit-world.”

Here (courtesy of the internet, which of course fished the quote up for me instantly) is the entire passage of Rilke’s in question:

"That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called ‘visions,’ the whole so-called ‘spirit-world,’ death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God.”

Rilke wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, when technology was suddenly collapsing all the old limitations that space and time had formerly placed on human interactivity, allowing people thousands of miles apart to communicate almost instantly. For him, modern life was full--distressingly full--of these non-essential connections. We moderns, he felt, were becoming addicted to the trivial. People love to pass non-essential bits of news back and forth, he felt, because doing so helps them to forget about the fact that at the heart of the modern world there is an emptiness: an emptiness that no amount of momentarily distracting content will do a thing to cure. On the contrary, the more we bask in all this superficial connectivity, the less connected we become to the things that really matter: to God, and to the whole invisible dimension of spirit.

Anyone who feels these notions don’t apply to them should try this simple experiment. The next time you feel yourself reaching to check your email or your favorite website, stop and examine the impulse that drove you to do so. You might find yourself saying: “Well, I’m expecting an important email from so-and-so. It could have come in since I last checked my in-box.” Or: “There’s a lot going on in the world today. I’m curious to see how things are shaping up in the Mid East.” But if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll probably discover that for you, as for most of us, it very often isn’t the content the internet provides that most often makes us turn to it, but the fact that by linking us to an invisible community of people outside ourselves and filling us with some piece of content large (the Mid East) or small (my friend Glen’s bagel), it helps us erase, for a moment, those twin feelings of emptiness and disconnection that Rilke believed are the defining marks of life in the modern world: a world that has lost its nerve--its courage--to believe that there is a world of spirit out there that is every bit as real as our material world, and way more real than the spectral one that meets us on the internet.

So now that I enjoy Facebook so much, have I forgotten about all these grand ideas and opinions? Hardly. Instead, Facebook has only made me more conscious of how much I have come to rely on the internet to fill up my own idle moments--to kill those nasty little feelings of emptiness and disconnection that I’m as prey to as anyone else.

But Facebook has also taught me something else. Social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest don’t just pretend to make us more connected – they actually do connect us. Thanks to Facebook, I have now had short exchanges with dozens of people who I haven’t seen in decades. I know where they live, what they’re up to, and things like what their five favorite novels or their five least favorite sports teams are.

Trivial, mundane pieces of knowledge. The kind of fluff that, according to Rilke, T. S. Eliot, and any number of other modern writers, our world is drowning in, much to its spiritual detriment.

But this fluff is, it turns out, genuinely nutritious--at least to a degree. For though I don’t really know what’s going with all these old friends and acquaintances on a deep level, these little submarine blips and pings of information remind me that they’re out there somewhere--that they’re living their daily lives, and that though I might not see and be a part of those lives on a day to day level, they are still the same 100% real people who I once knew more fully and who I might come to know on a more complete level once again.

Will I ever get a chance to? Not with all of them certainly--at least on this current level of existence. But this current level of existence is, fortunately, not the only one there is. Many spiritual traditions talk about the loneliness and separation of material existence.

Though we experience them with special intensity, those feelings weren’t born in the modern world but have been part of the human story from the beginning. All of us pine, on some level, for a different kind of existence: one in which each of us can be connected to--can be a member of--everyone else, and in which all of us, in turn, experience ourselves and others as members of the Divine. It is precisely this condition, say traditions the world over, that our present, alienated world fell out of contact with at some distant point in the past--and that it will recover at some longed-for point in the future.

An invisible dimension in which everybody is connected to everybody else--in which each is fully open and fully knowable to the other. A dimension in which no one is really alone, or separate, or empty...The internet will never, ever actually be this place. But sometimes, in its more inspired moments, it gets close to being so. Close enough that it reminds us how important it is to believe in that larger spiritual world--and how small and hopelessly disconnected life on this plane will be if we ever lose sight of it completely.

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