Virtually Alone

How Our Thumbs Disrupt Intimacy

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Guest Contributor

It’s about as safe as a childishly romantic daydream, only better; I almost feel like I’m getting away with something. In my hand is the power to cultivate emotional intimacy between us, yet the danger of transgressing physically is all but removed.

We didn’t pick an evening and a time. I didn’t wait expectantly for his arrival, unlock the front door, walk with him to his car, and try to figure out what restaurant he had picked. We didn’t decide how long to stay at the restaurant, or to stop at a coffee shop before he dropped me off. We didn’t make a hundred little, tangible decisions people make when they meet face to face.

All I did was roll over in my bed and tap a button when Skype rang, yet there he is, face to face, right beside me.

We want to be truly known, and our smartphones have a knack for making human intimacy startlingly accessible.

Emotional Nakedness

This kind of communication is designed to be simple, unforced, compulsive. Smartphones are virtual Swiss Army Knives that we can wield to construct or to wound. Too often, it’s my flesh’s favorite tool when cheaply bartering for the intimacy my soul craves. Too often, I make myself bleed.

Sticking together the pristine scrapbook pages of our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and personal blog, we polish our public persona for our broader audience to admire. And while sometimes we just want our social media profiles to buffer us from our world, we also want a space to safely bare all.

Texting, Snapchat, Skype, Facetime, and related apps are the current generation’s avenues we daily take to connect with those we already know and like. With our sharp cameras, swiping keyboards, and rapid connection speeds, we can better expose ourselves on impulse.

I’m a “good Christian”; I know all the rules.

Fornication? That’s sin.

Sending nudes over Snapchat? That’s sin.

But baring my private life to those who aren’t committed to me? That’s the perfect way to induce closeness while sidestepping the “mortal” sins of the other two.

Sprinkled with laughing emoticons, a friend recently expressed to me, “It’s much easier to introduce topics that are highly personal in an accelerated manner over text, and far more difficult in person. Our hormones get all fired up, and we’re liable to open up about personal events in our lives that we normally wouldn’t share.”

Naturally, bonding and being accepted for our regular, awkward selves feels pleasurable. He went on to sardonically note that Snapchat, which destroys all messages after ten seconds, was purposefully oriented around “speaking without thinking, but with pictures.”

This format encourages us to open our mundane, everyday vulnerability to those we want to draw into our story for the moment, those who can’t commit to love us for another day, let alone a lifetime.

The Devourer of Godly Solitude

It’s easy for me to rationalize my phone habits as being less weighty than how I conduct myself when physically present with another person, but Jesus’s teachings on adultery and murder remind me of the opposite spiritual principle (Matthew 5:21–30).

If an act that engages all the senses and a fantasy that engages none of them carry equivalent moral weight, then surely an act that engages only some of the senses does, too. Before God, my thumbs mean as much as my heart and my hands.

Our smartphones, saddled with the apps we depend on to keep close to the people we’re affectionate toward, often catch us off guard as a portal for cheap self-disclosure and a devourer of our godly solitude.

Wedged into our lives before we’re sure what’s happening, our breakable relationships enter our bedrooms and bathrooms by proxy. We provide our social circle with a type of omnipresent access to our boring routines — the fully-clothed nakedness of our everyday life. When we inform them of our every meal, ask them to tuck us in as we settle into bed, send them a pre-shower good-morning picture, or even bring them into our prayer closet by sending out a snap with a Bible in our lap, we’ve gone too far. Our godly solitude evaporates with our impulsive whims.

Having all of our favorite people “on tap” can be the perfect bait to distract us from getting intimately alone with our heavenly Father, who loves us with a covenantal love.

In his new book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke summarizes how distractions tragically “give us easy escape from the silence and solitude whereby we become acquainted with our finitude, our inescapable mortality, and the distance of God from all our desires, hopes, and pleasures.” It’s easier for me to grab my phone and pour my heart out to someone I’m interested in than it is to get alone and splay my aching internals before a holy God. Instant intimacy costs us more, and rewards us less, than we think.

Without smartphones, the only people who would see us so exposed would be those in permanent, covenantal relationship with us: our spouse, our family, our true-blue friends, and our God. By nature, developing intimacy shouldn’t be easy or impulsive.

Returning to True Intimacy

Our God doesn’t put the lonely around families; he puts them in families (Psalm 68:6). Whether it’s marrying a fiancé, adopting an orphan, or welcoming a single student or widowed elder into a family, no process is easy. Each of these experiences requires us to deprioritize our technological tools, so that we can fully engage in a committed love through the turbulent and lengthy process of intimacy. When we’re finally present in the lives of one another, we’re properly privy to one another’s everyday vulnerability, both when texting them at work and greeting them with a hug at the door.

We should let others in, but take care to forge fellowship first. We should be vulnerable, but not flippant. We should feel the beautiful weight and expense of cultivating intimacy with others, but care enough about their eternal souls to take back our godly solitude.

I’m learning to ask myself questions when I stare into a familiar face illuminated in blue light: Does this encroach upon my needed aloneness with my Master? Would this still be right to say or share if they were right here with me? Is it wise, whether side by side, through my phone, or in my head, to be intimate with them in this way? I might need to jump out of bed and sit at the kitchen table before I remotely accept them into the room.

We need more intimacy and self-disclosure in our lonely world, first with God and then with one another. But intimacy should require more than just a tap of our thumb. It will be worth it for us to consider our covenants when it comes to exposing our vulnerability with and trading away our solitude for someone on the other side of a screen.

(@rpmcotonethal) is a slave of Christ, an ecclesiastical history enthusiast, and a servant for the W.I.S.E. Women’s Network Bible studies in Northern California.