Facebook and Community

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.

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4 thoughts on “Facebook and Community

  1. The Benedictine Sisters are also posting to a Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/pages/Rock-Island-IL/Benedictine-Sisters-of-St-Mary-Monastery/87861423106?ref=ts. Check it out – become a “fan” – and post comments!

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  2. This is very interesting, Amy. I am wondering how much you will feel the same after you’ve been on Facebook for several months or a year. I noticed that some of my childhood/teenage friends emerged in the first couple of months, and we caught up on one another’s lives, yet after some time has passed perhaps we don’t have as much in common as we once had. Or we’re not as interested any more. The intensity of that first re-connection waned tremendously.

    I have experienced that generational continuity when visiting my old hometown; there’s a different feeling when people know you, your parents, your grandparents. There’s a sense of belonging that escapes most of us who have moved to new places. You are defined not only by your personal characteristics, but also by a lineage. It can be embracing and encompassing, and sometimes limiting and painful because you are often not really seen completely for who you are, simply as a link in a chain.

    My kids, I think, have experienced some of what you describe here. They often look in at friends from high school/elementary school and feel a continuity with the past by knowing what they are doing, by looking at pictures. Yet I don’t think they actively pursue friendship with most…

    “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.” I like the way you said that. I have the same feeling toward the Gaia community, toward wordpress friends (especially commenters with whom we’ve developed a degree of presence in one another’s lives) and to a more limited degree, with Facebook.

    Thank you for these thoughts…will keep pondering them.

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  3. I like what you said about generational continuity: “You are defined not only by your personal characteristics, but also by a lineage. It can be embracing and encompassing, and sometimes limiting and painful because you are often not really seen completely for who you are, simply as a link in a chain.”

    Yes, that last sense especially drives me to identify more readily with my network of friends than with my family. And the church! That is a commitment borne of sheer obedience to a gospel mandate–and an intuition that it’s vital to establish connections beyond those based on friendship or family.

    The connections I’m making with childhood folks that are moving me are not those with friends. I’ve kept in enough touch with most friends that there’s not a re-energizing sense of connection there. It’s the sense more of connecting with those with whom I grew up with whom I never had felt a strong bond–the very people with whom I’d not felt a strong sense of having had anything in common when we graduated from high school. And the conversations and ties emerging now are not intense; they are simply there, and being built on in little small ways here and there.

    If anything, I’m aware now of the common life among us, whereas when I was 18, I was aware of how different I felt from most.

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  4. Oh, I love what you just said…finding connections with those in which we once experienced only difference. Lovely! Realizing our similarities, versus those awkward and painful feelings of difference, alienation and separation. I see how Facebook can be an agent of healing and integration in this way. Beautiful, Amy.

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