The False Promise of Virtual Meetings
Technology, whether it be for entertainment, learning, or communication, can be useful in many ways. The pandemic made technologists of all of us. Work, then entertainment went online, and soon the absence of gathering in person was filled with Zoom meetings for social interaction, school, and finally meeting for worship. “Wherever two or more are gathered” was taken at its root meaning, and Friends began to gather one by one and then in larger technological groups for meeting for worship. There is nothing inherently wrong with entertainment moving from gathering together to streaming or with using Zoom, for example, for learning or connecting with colleagues. It is when we overly rely on technology to facilitate the majority of our human communications that problems arise. Just as we have recognized what we lose when we see a film by ourselves on a small screen, we need to acknowledge the change wrought by technology in our worship.
Community is at the center of the Quaker experience, and throughout its history, Friends have clustered in towns large and small, gathered in meetinghouses, and even traveled together when meetings relocated. During the pandemic, however, we came to rely on the technology of remote conferencing in order to stay safe and stay connected to friends and to Friends in our spiritual practice. This enabled us to worship as a gathered meeting, even in our homes far apart; learn Quaker history; and listen to Friends’ messages. Clearly this was an advance. But like all that moves forward, something was left behind.
Perhaps it was my Waldorf education. Perhaps it was the fact that my parents ignored my schooling and let me watch as much TV as I wanted. Perhaps it was the fact that I overdosed on TV and old films so much that by the time I got to college I had the following realization: too much technology makes me feel awful. I become disconnected, distracted, and disproportionately not present.
But there was one takeaway I got from my untold hours of TV and old film watching: people used to communicate differently from the way we do now. They made eye contact; they listened to each other; and they took turns speaking. I realize, of course, that this is a construct and that I was watching an idealized version of human communication as depicted by TV and film scriptwriters. But this does not negate the fact that, as a society, we were once taught how to communicate with each other face-to-face, and our communication skills have, since the advent of technology, all but disappeared.
When I was a preschool teacher, I noticed a child trying to tell me something while running away. It was jarring that he was leaving and trying to connect at the same time. I realized that young children must be taught how to make eye contact, to listen to their adults and peers, and to remain in one place while doing so. Modeling that behavior is one of the life skills imparted by early childhood education. Little ones are very busy doing many things at one time, and effective communication skills are not at the top of their priority list. Mute buttons and screen captures can impose order, but if that behavior does not emanate from within, it is just window-dressing on civility. Quakerism was founded on the idea that one does not need a moderator in their interlocution with God. Zoom functions best when a moderator has control of a mute button and can maintain order, silence someone’s echoey connection, or manage a malfunction in the operation. These two perspectives coexist with friction.
As a society, we have become like the small children I used to teach. We are overextended; we are goaded into doing too much by the fear of missing out; and we no longer know how to simply be present in the company of others. Meeting for worship reveals this behavior when it occurs in person, especially when someone’s message grows out of the “we” and into the “me,” or the younger set sits for that part of meeting that is appropriate for their development. Young children are not the only ones who lack social skills. A recent visit to a doctor resulted in a conversation about how patients and doctors have also forgotten how to communicate with each other. The now common electronic tablet list of questions, forms to fill out, and boxes to check can add a technology-made barrier between doctor and patient.
Another example of the loss of social skills is the issue of isolation that has resulted from remote work. As I write, two friends are looking—after several years of working at home—to return to a workplace with colleagues. They are tired of being alone in their apartments, and what they miss more than ever is what David Brooks, of the New York Times, refers to as “social capital”: the small moments we have with a colleague or a perfect stranger—say a neighbor walking a dog—that connect us to one another and take us out of ourselves. I remember only too well running into a parent in the hallway when I was a teacher, and how just a five-minute conversation could leave me smiling for the rest of the day. What is missed when we substitute technology for touch, and remote for real time, is the subtle and the easily missed.
During the pandemic, I taught an online writers’ circle at the New York Public Library. I immediately noticed how much I disliked teaching online and the odd, static feeling I got from staring at my students on a screen, especially when some were getting up, leaving the room, playing music in the background, and lacking an understanding of the mute function. I found myself frustrated and de-energized by the lack of interaction. It was exactly the opposite feeling of leaving the library after a live session and heading down to the subway, tired but inspired by the thoughts, connections, and conversations of my students. Once it moved online, I appreciated that we could continue to meet with each other but also felt that the very technology contributing to this connection was at the same time dehumanizing us.
Now that the pandemic’s most acute lockdown phase is over, we have the opportunity to return to each other and rebuild the nuance and unknown of in-person connections. As Friends have learned more about the intricacies of meeting in person safely (masking, staying away when ill, vaccinations for the benefit of others), we can come back to meetings for worship, no matter how small, that have been at the heart of the Quaker movement for centuries. In this return, we can once again seek Spirit while being physically present with each other.
Meeting for worship grows out of the simple admonition to gather that is the hallmark of every religion. This gathering can start quite small, even in your or your neighbor’s home. It is not the place but the gathering together that makes the meeting. My late mother-in-law, Maria Prytula, was a part of New York Meeting in the 1970s, and attended an old and well-established meeting for worship with a lovely meetinghouse and an active membership of Friends and the curious. It was a good home for a wandering ex-Catholic. The meeting made a permanent impression, so when she moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, she looked for and did not find a similar established presence. There was no formal meeting; however, one took place weekly in the homes of several families so like-minded Friends could worship together. In time Maria began hosting as well, liking the rhythm and the community that came with worship. The homes that were thus temporarily transformed eventually returned to living rooms and their prosaic life, but the gathered Friends stayed connected. As the group outgrew the houses, church basements were rented, and more gathered.
By 1983, a name was agreed upon—Harrisonburg Meeting—and it fell under the care of Charlottesville (Va.) Meeting. The regional affiliation was with Baltimore Yearly Meeting, as well as Virginia Half Years Meeting. Over the years, the meeting grew, moved to a local church, and was granted monthly meeting status by Baltimore Yearly Meeting. In addition, Harrisonburg Meeting became fully affiliated with both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting. Eventually, a meetinghouse budget was created, and a church building was purchased and renovated in the neighboring town of Dayton. The first meeting was held there in April of 2000, and the name was officially changed to Valley Friends Meeting; it is still active today.
For Friends who have no access to a local meeting, Zoom can be an alternative, one that did not exist in any way, shape, or form in 1983. It can bring Quakers together again to worship and learn from each other from their living rooms, without having to set up extra chairs among the couches and settees. It can support the homebound as well as the immunocompromised, for whom basic prevention is not enough. However, in relying upon Zoom, we lose the many benefits of worshiping in person: the quiet or not so quiet of an urban meeting trying to center amid the hubbub; eye contact over a cup of coffee during fellowship hour; the warm facial expressions exchanged in a conversation in the parking lot; the impromptu opportunities for eldering; the modeled behavior of sitting quietly in worship—in short, the live human connection. For these reasons, an in-person meeting, where one is possible, will always be more gratifying to me.
The change in the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic as we move into an endemic state has enabled meeting for worship in person once more, and allows for the empty chair, so to speak, that invites a fellow Friend, seeker, or stranger to sit with us.
Anita Bushell was interviewed for the March episode of our Quakers Today podcast.