I was reluctant to join Facebook. Perhaps many of you have felt the same. I finally did for two reasons: I realized many of my highschool friends were present there, and a fellow theologian told me she was developing theological connections through it. So I joined.
Very quickly on Facebook, you realize that you need to find your own rhythm regarding how much time to spend on it, how often to post, and what sorts of news feeds from friends to keep and which to hide (like the announcements of someone winning online scrabble or solitaire). Facebook can eat up as much or as little of your time as you elect. It can be a distraction from the rest of the work of your life, or it can become another means of loving the world.
But what I hadn’t anticipated was the degree to which my childhood classmates would quickly find and “Friend” me (or I them). What I’m experiencing may be more unique to those of us from small towns (my graduating class had 88 people–though it would have been over 120 if a lot of students hadn’t dropped out, or moved away as the mines closed; the unemployment rate in my home county in Upper Michigan–Baraga County, pop. under 10,000 or so–is the highest in the state, but this is nothing new; it was 20-25% when I was growing up there as well).
When I say “classmate,” I don’t mean people to whom I was close (then or now) as friends. Those friends I’ve stayed in touch with to varying degrees. What startled me was the sudden burst of connection with the many people who’d formed part of the fabric of my life during my growing up years. All of a sudden I know that one of my classmates is in charge of ensuring low-income housing meets standards for an Ojibwe tribe (we had a reservation in our hometown). Another woman has just sent her daughter off to college while her husband is still serving in Iraq. My first friend, a future jock with whom I played daily until 6th grade, when she got into the Fonz and curling irons and we more or less stopped hanging out, told me about her grandmother’s death this spring (a grandmother who lived in the same trailer park we did as small children, and whose cookie recipe I still use). The woman I regarded as the beauty queen of our class (Finnish American style, with white blond hair I envied) struggles with a spinal cord tumor that may leave her in a wheelchair. A man who was my first grade boyfriend (which meant we bonded by winning together king of the hill on the snowbanks at recess) liked the joke I passed on about Brett Favre & the Vikings being the real “divinely-ordained” target of a tornado in Minneapolis the first day of the ELCA Lutheran church convention. His sister, who grew up in the same Lutheran church as I and later came out as lesbian, posted regular and glad messages about the ELCA voting to accept same-sex relationships and to ordain gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered pastors who are in committed relationships. My best friend’s much younger kid sister–whom I scarcely knew–wants to read my book proposal (having a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary). And my high school class is going to use Facebook to plan our next reunion.
I’ve written now and then of how one big difference between being a Benedictine and being an Oblate concerns community. Benedictines have a clearly defined, shared community of support and accountability. Married persons do as well, though partners of Oblates may or may not share the same vision. But what’s the community of single persons? And what’s the broader community of all Oblates, married or single?
Obviously there’s no one answer to these questions. But Facebook reconstitutes for me a dormant community, a network of human beings who feel bound to one another merely by virtue of having grown up at the same time and place. A commitment to place is one Benedictine value, and Facebook oddly enables that commitment to continue and be renewed, among those who physically stayed and those who had to move away. It’s a particular sort of community, one without the daily intensity of a marriage or monastery, but a corporate body all the same. What hurts someone with whom I grew up hurts me, what brings them joy gladdens me too. We are one body somehow. The kind that is formed more like a neighborhood than by family or close friendship ties.
How many of us who left a place we grew up are aware that moving away is often the single most significant decision we made in our lives? It deprives us of generational continuity, especially when our own nuclear and extended families are also spread out across hundreds and thousands of miles. For those of us from small communities where everyone knew everyone else, Facebook draws us together again–however much our differences as youth led us to choose different paths. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a clear sign of the value of “stability of place”–a value that extends far beyond the Benedictine community, however much Benedictine ways call us to mindfulness of it.