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Despite the world changing drastically as the coronavirus has spread, my response has been mild. As a stay-at-home mom, I was accustomed to a lot of social isolation. I didn’t get annoyed when I wasn’t able to buy toilet paper, or when I had to alter my breakfast routine because the store was out of eggs, or when my nephew’s T-ball league was canceled. I took it all in stride until the first Sunday that I watched church online.
That was when the reality of what was happening struck me.
A lump rose up in my throat as I thought, This is not how it’s supposed to be. Nearly 300 people were on my church’s livestream. Using a chat feature, congregants greeted each other, made jokes about this new way of worshipping, and asked for prayer. Churchgoers commented that they were singing, raising their hands, and kneeling—participating in familiar ways despite the new form.
This way of doing church was definitely better than not gathering at all, but it was vastly inferior to the typical gathering with fellow Christians to worship, pray, and fellowship.
During the pandemic, we depend more and more on our screens. People use smartphones to connect with friends and family, and rely more on laptops and WiFi to work from home. More people are ordering groceries online to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus.
These changes are necessary in this crisis. But I fear they could induce a permanent dependence on technology that actually degrades our off-screen way of life.
Phones and computers are powerful tools for connection in the midst of this crisis, but they don’t allow us to connect in embodied ways central to who we are. In the story of creation, God first speaks into being the galaxies and all the earth contains. All came into existence by the power of His word.
But when He created mankind, He did something different. He didn’t speak it into being—He crafted a body from the dust. And with a breath, He turned it into a living being (Gen 2:7). When God wanted a helpmate for His beloved creation, He put His boy to sleep. Performing the world’s first surgery, He removed His rib and from it made a second body, woman (Gen 2:18, 21-22).
God’s closeness to bodily man does not stop there. He eventually places Himself in a body, lives, breathes, and dies as one with mankind. As Jesus, the Trinity remains embodied for eternity. And Christians too will be embodied forever in our resurrected bodies.
Physical interaction with others matters. A 20-second hug triggers chemical changes in the brain. A smile does the same. Children who grow up with hugs and eye contact become healthier adults. This all reflects the design of the Creator. A meeting by FaceTime might appear to be functionally equivalent to an in-person meeting. But it is lacking in that essential respect: It doesn’t allow for eye contact.
Why bring this up when so many of us can’t be together physically? Remembering the importance of embodiment is vital for our response now—and in thinking about how we go back to life as usual when this is over.
Virtual “togetherness” will tempt us to replace all embodied contact. And this is where we risk losing part of our humanity in this crisis.
Even now it is possible to find ways to connect with others in the flesh—though it will take creativity, intentionality, and continual modification as health guidelines change. Yesterday, I caught myself yelling down from my second-story balcony to a neighbor below. It felt awkward, almost rude. But it was a way to exchange an in-person greeting, to look someone in the eye, to exchange a smile as we commiserated about our mutual isolation.
In her book Alone Together, sociologist and technology researcher Sherry Turkle describes a thought progression that’s common among her research subjects: They regard the tech they use as better than nothing, then gradually regard it as better than anything.
Many people today probably think working from home is better than not working at all. FaceTiming Grandma is better than not seeing her at all. But when the social distancing restrictions ease, when the disease fades, will we regard our current technological solutions as better than what we could go back to?
On a recent Sunday, I slept in later than usual. Instead of rushing to get out the door, I read, made coffee and breakfast, played with my child, and talked to my husband. Then, half-dressed, I opened my church’s website and “did church.” At the end of the service, I went about my day. My daughter was able to go down for her nap on time, I saved money on lunch by eating from home instead of our usual post-church lunch with friends. By not driving and socializing, I added hours back to my normally full Sunday.
So we may wonder: Why go back to the way it was?
When shops reopen, offices call their workers back, and we can once again gather in groups of more than 10, will we go back to the inconvenience of being together? Or will we be happy with the new norm of distance and separation?
We get to choose how we respond to this pandemic. My hope is that we choose to find creative ways to connect in the flesh today—in the very limited circumstances where that’s still possible—and that when the pandemic passes, we remain people who live embodied lives, laughing, playing, and being present for those around us.
Amy Van Oudenaren is a native Texan, a former missionary in South Sudan, and an advocate for limiting the use of screen technologies in child-rearing. She’s currently raising a 1-year-old daughter and writing a novel for young adults.