Advent can speak to us of authenticity in our relationships, believes Nicole Law.
I recently received an online message from an old friend. We hadn’t spoken for years and I recalled fondly the experiences we had shared in school. A warmth welled up in my heart as I anticipated that she would like to catch up over coffee. I clicked ‘open’ and read the first few lines of her message: “Hi Nicole, hope you’ve been well. I was wondering if you were interested in some insurance…”
Those last two words hit me like an express train. Our connection had devolved from being a friendship built on sharing into a transactional one – I was a potential client and not the girl she had shared her secrets with in between lessons.
Since then, I have grown all too familiar with the commercial nature of our human connections, even more so as we navigate the complex social spaces of this era.
My grandmother regales me with tales of old friends and how, across time and space, she has maintained connections with her childhood chums. These are the elderly men and women who show up at her door with fruit cake at Christmas or ring her on her landline, the old-fashioned way.
But I cannot recall the last time I received a voice call that did not involve work or some project I was involved in, a fact which speaks volumes about society today. We approach our human relationships with expectations, and we start to view people as ‘tools’ or means to an end. What’s in it for me? Should I befriend this person? Will I get anything out of this friendship?
Sadly, we are asking the wrong questions.
Human relationships are increasingly reduced to exchanges between ‘products’ and ‘users’. This prompted me to re-examine the relationships in my own life. I reflected on how I saw these people – were they products, or were they living, breathing, imperfect beings?
In truth, the thousand friends displaying on Facebook were just a number – the genuine connections were few and far between. I realised that many of my online conversations bordered on the superficial and there was an element of selfishness in them. We talked about the latest trends, that news article which caught our attention, but that was about as far as it went. Too many of my relationships involved paddling lightly in the shallow end and, unsurprisingly, failed ever to venture out into the deep waters of genuine sharing.
The sharp bursts of affirmation and the pressure of social media’s expectations of ‘friendship’ morphed these connections into little more than posed photographs and customary ‘appreciation posts’. Perhaps they made me afraid of venturing out into deeper waters where my feet could not feel the bottom.
It dawned upon me then – I was staring at the absence of authenticity in many of our relationships.
We favour the perceived safety of the superficial, the ‘low commitment’ strategy of expanding our social networks instead of engaging with the ‘messy’. The ‘messy’ cannot be contained within the original 140-character tweet limit (now 280 but hardly enough for genuine dialogue) or the brevity of online communication – the ‘messy’ calls for a deeper form of generosity of spirit that forces us out of our corners.
The Austrian-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber reminds us, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.” The image of electricity is visually striking – electricity itself is the flow of current, composed of opposite charges, not unlike the radically diverse individuals who form the tapestry of our lives. Electricity is dynamic, it illuminates our homes, sets our appliances in motion, it charges our devices.
Relationships in which we prioritise our own needs tend to be static and devoid of this vital connection. We exist as shells of ourselves and are motivated by intrinsically selfish desires. We come away feeling a renewed sense of isolation and disconnect.
But placing the needs of others before our own breathes life into these broken spaces. We give of ourselves, sometimes beyond our own perceived capacities.
I am frequently reminded of my own weakness and humanity and that is where I see the primacy, the necessity of grace, that mysterious action of divine life in my soul. It fills the space between my human limits and a limitless potential that lies far beyond. As grace starts to enter my relationships, the gears slip into place. At first it seems like a broken-down car chugging into life but gradually this gives way to an effortless – and pleasing – whirr.
The season of Advent is upon us. I glimpse the beauty of the Christmas story – one steeped in authentic, selfless love. That text from the Gospel of John comes to mind, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. God’s love for humanity is seen, touched and experienced in the newborn child lying in a lowly manger in Bethlehem.
Christ could have come in many other forms. He could have suddenly appeared, manifesting his divine glory, in the middle of a busy intersection downtown. Instead, he chose to humble himself to assume our human condition.
There is nothing transactional about this act of love.
The amazing thing is, he did not expect us to do anything in return for him. The selfless love of Christ paints a stark contrast to our human relationships which so often are constrained by terms and conditions. Our language of love seems to revolve around “I love you if you….” where he gently reminds us “I love you.” Full-stop. But such an unconditional declaration of love for mankind paradoxically calls for deep authenticity on our part.
Our human conception of love pales in comparison and points to our disconnected nature. We are linked to one another by our online connections and overlapping networks, but at a deeper level, we are dissociated, isolated and empty. There is a void that we aim to fill with temporary consolations. Some of us turn to binge eating, watching excessive TV on Netflix, fishing for ‘likes’ on social media or drinking. We seek to numb this isolation when really what we desperately yearn for is to feel – to feel our hearts stirred.
The great irony of our time is that we live in a world that prides itself on its interconnectedness and ability to transcend boundaries imposed by physical distance. Yet, we are increasingly isolated.
As Christmas draws near, not every person will have a family celebration to return to. Some may be estranged from their immediate family, turned away at the door, or they may find it near impossible to bridge some difference in opinion. Christmas may not necessarily be the ‘warm’ season that we have associated it with.
Yet, in the humble manger, the defenceless child holds in his infant hands a beautiful line of connection between us and God. The Old Testament God is unseen, a deity who comes in raging fire or gentle breeze but invisible either way.
The Bethlehem story tells of a very different presence. God makes an inalienable connection with us all. His is a connection which does not depend on the strength of our Wifi signal. In fact, it is a connection that has persisted across time and space, much like the friends my grandmother still cherishes to this day.
The authentic love revealed by the child in the manger as he lies surrounded by dumb beasts reminds us all to move beyond what we consider ourselves capable of and calls on us to build a connection that engages with the brokenness and messiness of the people we love.
Amidst the bleating of the animals and the flurry of conversation, the delicate glow from the child promises to electrify us too, if only we are willing to venture a little further into the beauty of authenticity.
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