Friday, April 1, 2011

The Far and the Near

Thomas Wolfe wrote a poignant short story in 1935 titled, "The Far and the Near".  I read it once, 12 or 13 years ago, and it is still with me.  Here is a plot summary, found at this site, where you can read all about it,

"Wolfe's 'The Far and the Near' starts out with a description of a little town, which contains a small cottage on its outskirts. The cottage appears clean and comfortable. Every day, just after two o'clock in the afternoon, an express train passes by the house. For more than twenty years, the train engineer blows his whistle, prompting a woman inside the house to come out on her porch and wave to him. Over this time, the woman's little girl grows up, and she joins her mother in waving to the engineer. The engineer grows old during this time and sees a lot of tragedy during his service for the railroad, including four fatal accidents on the tracks in front of him. Throughout all of this tragedy, however, he remains focused on the vision of the cottage and the two women, an image that he thinks is beautiful and unchangeable. He has a father's love towards the two women and, after so many thousands of trips past their cottage, feels that he knows the women's lives completely.

As a result, he resolves to visit the women on the day he retires, to tell them what a profound effect they have had on his life. When that day comes, he walks from the train station into the small town. As he walks through the town, he is unsure of his decision, because the town seems so unfamiliar—much different from how it has looked from his train cab. When he gets to the women's cottage, he is even more unsure, but he decides to go through with it. When he meets the woman, she is instantly suspicious of him, and the train engineer is sorry that he has come. The woman whom he has idealized all of those years appears different, and her harsh voice is not what he expected. He explains who he is and why he has come, and the woman reluctantly invites him inside and calls for her daughter. The engineer sits down with both women in an ugly parlor and awkwardly talks to them while they fix him with hostile looks. Finally, the engineer leaves, and he is shaken from his experience. He is distraught because the one aspect of his life that he thought was pure and beautiful is stained. With this revelation, he realizes that he has lost all hope and that he will never be able to see the good in life again."

Uplifting, right?

To me, it seems almost prophetic.  Certainly it has always been relevant to the human condition, but it has an entirely new application in the dawning age of the Internet, and, more specifically, the blog.

The implications of our Facebook/Twitter/Google Reader/Blogger/Internet culture at our fingertips 24/7 are many- I don't need to discuss that here.  But honestly- Seinfeld would have had a field day with the amount of material this technological revolution has to offer.

I was thinking today about the good friends I've made online.  I've talked to several this week.  I admit- I don't read that many personal blogs- mostly I use Google Reader to keep up with authors, decorators, and National Geographic.  But over the years I've made some incredible friends via this blog.  Just a few very good ones- and I've "met" probably hundreds of other wonderful people.  All a bit of a happy accident, because I started talking to "no one" about my everyday life, on the Internet, to keep memories for my family, for me.  It turns out, lots of other people do the same thing.

It sounds crazy- a close friendship- a real relationship- with someone you have never met in person?  If you don't get it, it's OK.  But if you get it- you get me.  It can happen.  And typically a lot faster than it can take to make a friend like that the old fashioned way- you know, in person.  Because you cut through the pleasantries online.  It's nice.  Well, I think it's nice.  I hate small talk.  Of course, there are 100 reasons why it can go South.  People make quick, reaction-based decisions online.  We can toss people out too soon.  I don't think I like you?  Click- you're out of my life.  And, we are masters of what people see of us online- if we aren't careful to be transparent and honest, we can edit our online lives to our liking- and it can really mislead people.

That's why the Internet takes me back to Wolfe's short story.  That's why I don't have that many good online friends.  But some people- you just click.  And you really enjoy the friendship, you really encourage and inspire one another- you really hold one another up in the funny or the awful things that happen in your lives.  Every bit as valuable as your close friends in your own city- and you never could have met without the Internet.  It can be miraculous.

It happened to Julia Child and Avis DeVoto, it has happened to me.  It happens.

I've had the chance to meet a few people in person that I'd known and met online, and it's always been fantastic.  We've always ended up closer because of it.  Whew. So, I'm a big believer in the blessing of authentic, online friendships- because they are just that- friendships.

So- as long as you're intentional about being open, real, and honest about your life in your online relationships and in the relationships you have with the people around you, and as long as you are cultivating rich relationships in "real life", in addition to meeting some wonderful people across the country, then no worries.  I bet you'd absolutely love those online friends in real life.  You're just enjoying a new way of forming authentic human connection.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

We live in fascinating times in terms of our relationships, don't we? I am intrigued by the complexities of FB, blogs, etc. and this careful crafting of images, "facebook envy" and the sharing of so much trivial information with the masses, but so little meaningful experiences with "offline" people. I, like you, feel as though I have gained friends online (you for one!), and also lost "real" friendships to the pitfalls of the internet.