catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 13 :: 2009.06.19 — 2009.07.02


My cloud of witnesses

They are close friends. They are family. They are colleagues from academia and from previous jobs I’ve held. They are people I know from church and high school and college. They are people I’ve met at writer’s conferences.

They range from fourteen to sixty-six. They’re Christian, non-Christian. Democrat, Republican (plus a few socialists from Canada). Married and single. Parents and non-parents. Some have PhDs. Others are still working on high school or haven’t gone to school for a long time.

They’ve accumulated gradually over the last couple of years, my cloud of witnesses. I write most of them a short message most days (which some call a “status”). Sometimes as I work on it, I think about their heterogeneity consciously, sometimes less so, but it’s always there in the back of my mind, the fact that I’m talking to quite a diverse group of people.

The primary thing they have in common is that I met them face-to-face, and know-or knew-them well enough to accept their friend requests. But my relationships with each of them in the face-to-face world have been, and are, quite different.

The diversity of this group and of my relationships with each of them sometimes confounds me when I’m trying to flex my status-writing muscles. I’ve found it challenging to hospitably welcome them to a single space and a single conversation. How to be authentic and yet sensitive to their varying points of view? And how to bear with what they say, even when I find it less than stimulating or obnoxious?

While this diversity jumbled up in one space is often uncomfortable, it can also be invigorating. Having this unpredictable cloud of witnesses formalized within the world of Facebook, especially friends from the long past, reminds me of other experiences and situations in my life, breaking me out of my rut. It reminds me that my self and my life is bigger than the people I see face-to-face every day and the activities I do with my daily work, even while it reminds me to bear with those outside the Facebook environment as well.

As I decide what to say and how to respond to what they say each day, their presence at the other end of that conversation reminds me that I should always continue to work harder to love those I feel close to and those who I feel less close to, those whose presence I treasure and those who I find harder to deal with at times. It also reminds me of the heterogeneity that lives within me, and the importance of dealing honestly and kindly with those parts of myself that I love as well as those I like less. More broadly, it reminds me how real and daily are the challenges of hospitality, both online and off, and of living the tension between being authentic and being kind.

But yes, it can be terribly uncomfortable at times. Like any community, these others I’m in touch with often rub against my grain, and force me to learn to forgive.

This became abundantly clear to me during the American election last fall. Many of my friends from my pre-grad school life, several of whom are ardently Republican, were strongly pushing their perspective through their Facebook statuses and links they shared. So were my largely Democratic grad school friends.

I found it ironic, how much these people who did not know one another were striking blows at each other through my common reception of their strong viewpoints. It wasn’t easy, dealing with seeing these statuses and attached links so regularly. Many times it made me sad. Sometimes I waded into the fray temporarily, but I thought long and hard before I did so, trying to use the space offered by the written environment to reflect before I hit submit.

The fact that these widely differing viewpoints were juxtaposed in the single space of my screen forced me to recognize that I, rather than some computer application, was the hinge that held together these very different views.

Indeed, while I strongly disagreed with many of the things that were said by each group, I had things in common with each of these parties, even while other things that were said made me sad. This fact made me feel more than ever that these battles weren’t only being waged out there in America, or even on my computer screen, but also made me feel as though my embodied self, or at least my psyche, had become a battleground that was getting trampled a bit in the process of the virtual debate. 

Despite the angst that came with this position, I was glad that I knew people on both sides of the question. After all, it was a blessing that I was or had been a member of a diverse number of cultural worlds, and had found things to agree with, and to affirm, in each them even while I disagreed with others. This recognition of the variety of the worlds within which I had operated was bewildering, and yet it helped me better to map myself in relation to these cultural systems, to plant my feet more firmly in my own understandings of the world even while it forced me to bear with others and be kind to them, as my beliefs required me to do.

Sure, I could have hidden many of these posts from my Facebook homepage, and avoided some angst. I could have unfriended some of the people whose posts bothered me, or avoided Facebook altogether, as I might duck out of a party.

But this cloud of witnesses reminds me that I am not an island, even when I work at home with my doors closed. These others remind me who I am, who I have been and help me to struggle with who I may someday become. Beyond that, though, they are people whom I know and am connected to, and therefore are a daily visual representation of an even larger and more diverse group of people with whom I am called to bear and whom I might be able to serve in some small way throughout my life.

Ultimately, this cloud of witnesses whose faces cluster in little squares on my screen as I write my near-daily statuses is good for me, and I pray that I might be able to be a good host to them and others. 

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