separated only

by the mereness

of space

Distance is an uneasy concept.  Engineers and architects, carpenters and plumbers — those who live and work in the metrical universe of things that can be counted and measured — have no trouble with it at all.  Nor do physicists who explore the inner reaches of the atom, even as they use measurements meaningless in the larger world where the universe as we know it unfolds.

Distance in every other sense, however, is uneasy.  We can travel from point A to point B, knowing when we left, how far we have travelled, the route we have taken, and know when we have arrived.  Yet when we step outside of this framework, everything material — from arrival and departure, to route and destination, to description and explanation of what the journey involved — becomes meaningless.

The real annihilation of distance is found between two people.  It has little to do with physical proximity, because time and space – those characteristics of the metrical universe – are irrelevant.  People together in the here and now can be separated by infinite distance; people separated not only by distance but in time can be present, in memory and in thought, shaping the intimate details of each other’s lives in ways that can be counted and measured, though not explained.

Presence, and the gift of Presence, step outside time and space.  If the language seems spiritual, it is because these words try to symbolize the dimension of our lives that is lived in the non-metrical universe, in which nothing can be counted and measured.  It is the universe of value, where we find everything that is important to us.

We can become so mesmerized by the wired world in which we lived, full of its electronic links and connections, that we think with enough connections (like the old science fiction stories, such as Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), everything will come alive.  If only there are enough switches, the computer will become more than an artificial intelligence.  It will make the mystical leap into something that not only thinks but feels.

Yet we live in a universe of relations, not an environment of connections.  Electronic means can give us opportunities to connect to people all over the world, instantly appearing in devices travelling in places where we may never go, communicating to people we may rarely (or never) meet in person.  The friendships created and maintained, the wisdom and feelings that are shared, the lives that are shaped through these connections, can and do change the world.

It is not the connections that make the difference in who we are as human beings, however.  It is the relations.

From the moment of our birth, we are separated by what can seem like an unbridgable abyss from every other person for the rest of our lives.  In our wired world, we communicate from inside our own pod, increasingly insulated from relations with other people that were common even a generation ago.  We communicate nothing much of who we really are, but we can do it very quickly, and at a great distance.  If there is one emotional barrier to creating a sustainable future, it is the loneliness of too many people who feel no one cares and so they care little themselves.

In the universe of relations, however, all that can change in a moment.

In the end, humans live in the skin, not in the etherworld of electrons and Tweets. There is no substitute for that moment of shared recognition that creates Presence between two people who have never met before, that instant of relation that annihilates everything in between.  After such a moment, whether in the letters of another era, in phone calls or in the instant messages today, such Presence is called to mind and grounds whatever is communicated.

With the right words, distance can be annihilated between two people who may rarely, if ever, have the chance to sit across the table and eat a simple meal together, debating who gets the last spring roll.  With the right words, an intimacy in spirit can be called to life. With the right words, time becomes inconsequential, as memories bring the past literally to life inside of us.

L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables character would gush extravagantly about meeting “a kindred spirit,” someone with whom that instant rush of recognition went beyond the immediate and physical into some spiritual dimension, where friendship and intimacy are instantaneous and forever.

In the connected environment, with our urge for more Facebook friends, or links, or contacts, we cast a web world-wide in search of such kindred spirits, hoping as we search the electronic world we can find the Presence we need, so we are not left to feel alone.

In that search for what Ursula Franklin (in The Real World of Technology) called “reciprocity,” the back and forth of communication between two people, however, we no longer see the close at hand, the opportunities that surround us daily to meet the eyes of those who would otherwise pass us by as strangers.  We substitute the constructed realities of our connections for the present realities of the people we meet.

It is an artificial world, one that we have built according to our expectations, full of what we think we need and perhaps with little of what lies aching in our hearts.  There is activity, but no Presence.

People are messy and unexpected.  They upset calculations and plans, they interrupt our contemplations and disrupt the order we seem compelled to seek.  But in a universe of value, where it seems we most fear being alone, we must struggle to be Present with each person we meet.

It is hard to do this, because it takes care, wisdom and empathy to bridge the gulf between two people.  We need to be where we are, to search not an internet of connections but the eyes of strangers, people who are brought into our path by a pattern not of our making or choosing, for what we most need ourselves to find.

As we do this, we give a gift to everyone who meets us, everyone who sees in our eyes the recognition of a common moment of shared time together.  In that moment without words, who we are is communicated to the other person, and – sometimes, and without forewarning or logic – we ourselves experience that gift of Presence after which separation or distance is only “the mereness of space.”