In A Lonely World, Virtual Gatherings Can Provide Comfort

Jennifer was in Florida mourning her mother’s death. Friends and colleagues were literally around the globe – from Israel, to all four continental U.S. time zones, to New Zealand. Geographically so far away, what could we do?

Enter the Internet of Compassion. We met by video, at a time corresponding to Florida evening (Israel wee hours, New Zealand mid-morning, California midday). We fulfilled online the rites of a Jewish shiva minyanWe fulfilled between friends the heartfelt connection that holds and heals.

It wasn’t long ago that our world had no world wide web stretching to link the whole wide world. Until just a few years ago, live video streaming was barely a figment of imagination. Today, in the proverbial blink of an eye, video streaming to hand-held devices can connect us by the billions.

So why do people still sit alone when they need to connect?

Old habits die hard. Especially at times of illness and death, naturally we incline to practices rooted deep in memory, how and when we were raised, sometimes grounded in ancient tradition that arose in cultures so different that our ancestors could hardly imagine how we’d live today. Most everyone reading this blog post grew up before blog posts (and before an Internet filled with them). Most everyone reading this blog post is part of humanity’s only cohort to experience both the pre-Internet and Internet ages in all their societal fullness.

So naturally Jennifer, my tech-savvy Florida friend, was inclined to sit alone during a lull in her local community’s care for her, unable to imagine that an online experience could be real for her in that moment. The Jewish mourning ritual that she knew from childhood invited an actual village to enfold her for a week – physically feeding, caring for and hearing her through whatever grief’s early days may bring. Wringing out grief to exhaustion, the physical realities of shiva embed ancient wisdom as vital now as ever – and when it can work, it can work wonders.

And, today we live in an ever more post-geographic world. We can read online a “local” newspaper anywhere. We can gather online from potentially everywhere. With such tremendous technological capacity and change arraying before us, this moment invites us to re-imagine how we can re-figure ancient tradition to comfort and cradle those in need.

Thankfully for all of us, the Internet of Compassion knows no limit of place and no limit of creativity. While the web can’t hug or cook a meal, faces and voices can join together online and make real connections of heart and soul. During our online shiva minyan, Jennifer cried and laughed, and so did friends and colleagues online with her. It was real, raw and wonderful.

Functional MRIs confirm that the more of our senses we engage in real time, the more fully we can engage. Neurologically speaking, a letter (written) is better than nothing; phone (immediate sound) is better than a letter; and video (sound and sight) is better than phone (sound only). When we’re not together physically, live video can be a real, emotionally and spiritually engaging option.

Online connectivity has challenges compared to physical community – narrowcasting and homophily (attracting people already similar), disembodiment (the web can’t hug), convenience (dissipating physical community), and distraction (“alternative facts” and “fake news”). But in a world seemingly growing further apart, we need every tool to bring us together. The perfect need not be the enemy of the good.

So let the Internet of Compassion be your tool, and use it wisely. Schedule a video conference with someone who needs your contact. Gather friends to have dinner together online. Try a shiva minyan online. Make an online wish-list so an online village can attend a “local” housewarming.  Encourage others to do the same: gently lift barriers to accepting video as a tool for connection. All of these “life hack” ideas – and the ones we haven’t thought of yet – are part of the same paradigm shift that can help us care for each other even when geographical distance might seem to get “in the way.”

Let wisdom and creativity be your guides, and let the Internet of Compassion be your connector.

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