I woke from another night of deep dreams about a friend I have never met. It is odd how people can get under your skin like that and set up home in your heart. The coming of the internet changed many things, not least opening the world for our exploration, allowing us to stumble upon lives that capture ours in friendship and empathy.
I am blessed with a circle of friends with whom I can, and do, talk about absolutely everything from mice to men, from the deepest spiritual questions to the best fertiliser for roses. Many of them I have never met, the others so distant geographically that we seldom meet, and almost all of these friendships owe their depth to the written word. There is a freedom of expression available to the pen or keyboard that many of us cannot embrace in the flesh. With the written word we can say things we might be too embarrassed to voice, too shy to utter. Things that may defy the social conventions with which we have been conditioned and which we could never have said eye to eye. And sometimes, simply transcends the barriers of time and distance that separate us.
This, of course, is a double edged blade in many respects. It would be very easy to become cut off from reality and live in a virtual world, and I know many who have gone that way. It is also all too easy to be hurtful at a distance and taken to extremes the effects of cyber bullying can be devastating to their victims. The pen, even when it is a keyboard, can wield much power over the emotions.
But of course, the written word is not simply a static expression of thought. It can bring beauty or deception, information or inspiration… but it is dead and may as well not exist until it is given life by the reader. Words themselves mean little without the intellectual or emotional response they elicit, that stirring of heart and mind, questioning or dismissive, engaging or rejecting. It is always a two way process and the reader is deeply entwined in the creation of the effect. Without the imagination of the reader, no fantasy world could exist, no idea take root and no inspiration could flower.
It is the same with friendships built over the internet. It takes a genuine emotional response to nurture the growing seeds. Among the hundreds of people we encounter online a few strike a chord and a friendship can grow. I have seen the heartbreak when these are built around a false persona. I even saw a marriage rushed into with all the attendant heartache when reality hit home beyond the romance. But I have also seen deep and lasting friendships built and fleeting encounters given chance to grow that could never have happened without our access to the highways of the internet.
A brief encounter with a woman in unusual circumstances years ago, maintained largely via chat facilities, sparked one of the closest friendships I have ever known and the levels at which minds and hearts touch are extraordinary.
Not all of us travel and stumble across those kindred spirits to whom we warm immediately and who become part of our hearts and lives. Yet occasionally there is a spark immediately recognised and something special occurs. Whether in reality or online. I don’t think it has a lot to do with their words , but has more to do with a response and recognition of the person behind them.
One of my closest friendships was built on such a response. Two people, who could have been anyone, anywhere, began to answer each other’s posts on a forum. The minds got to know each other, the emotions were engaged with delight, the exchange of ideas went deep. It must have been years before we even saw a photo of each other. Yet so close did we become that he flew nearly five thousand miles to meet me. And that too was a joy.
It is almost as if the internet encourages in us the use of a sixth sense. We are dealing with possibly deceptive personas and the onus is on us to distinguish the false from the real, both with regard to those we meet and to ourselves. It is easy to project the personality we wish we had and deceive ourselves here too, and this, I think, is where many of the heartaches arise. If we can simply be who we are, and listen to that inner sense of truth, we encounter wonderful things and people every day.
There is one area though where electronic communications cannot help. The support from friends a thousand miles away geographically can be invaluable and sustaining when life hurts. I know this to be true having been incredibly blessed with it. But a phone call beats an email hands down. A handwritten letter can be cherished and carried next to the heart. A virtual shoulder is not the same as a real one, a cyber-hug lacks the warmth of arms holding you with love, and nothing can beat that eye to eye contact of a shared smile, whether in sympathy, mischief, friendship or love.
The internet is a wonderful thing, erasing isolation, encouraging communication and the dissemination of ideas, bridging the sometimes inevitable distance of separation, and allowing minds and hearts to speak to each other. But it can never be a substitute for the warmth of a human presence and a moment shared with a friend.