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How To Be There For Someone In The Digital Age

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My friend's father died and his post got 1,172 likes on facebook, generating hundreds of sad emoji faces and 327 comments ranging from 'thinking of you' to 'prayers' to the ubiquitous '{{hugs}}'. My friend later posted the funeral parlor information, complete with street map. That elicited five hundred similar sentiments and 1,152 emoji's, mostly sad, two wow's and one laughing face (let's hope that last one was only a typo). I went to that funeral. I was the only one who showed up.

We have never been so connected. Our social media brings us together in practical ways. We can reconnect with missing classmates. Childhood friends. I know a woman who saw a post and donated her kidney to a friend of a friend she had met once in grade school, some thirty years before. I myself lost contact with my only cousin and had given up hope of ever seeing him again when I found his profile picture smiling back at me from that familiar blue background.

However connected we are, we have also never been so alone. If we're careless, an emoji, a 'like', a quick comment will rob us of a valuable, real-world experience. Of something enriching and fulfilling and (again that word) real. We miss out on so much of life when we don't actually live it. The experience of place, of actually being there, physically, for those we care about changes them. It changes us. It changes everything.

I go to funerals. When lucky enough to be invited, I go to births. I've held the hand of my ninety year-old friend as he lay dying, telling him the words he needed to hear. I've held my niece in my arms, at only five days old, lavishing her with love, with words she couldn't understand but I needed to say. I drove half the eastern seaboard when my girlfriend got the lead in Les Miserables. And it goes both ways. As a debut novelist, it's a leap of faith each time I ask friends to show up for a book signing - to be there for me in ways I've (hopefully) been there for them. These things might mean something to my friends and loved ones. They mean everything to me.

There's no substitute for the real thing, for being there. My teenage daughter studies Italian so, last summer, we packed one backpack each - that was it for luggage, plus the shoes on our feet - and went and studied it there. In Italy. Are we better linguists, as a result? Sure. Did we forge friendships with amazing people we had never met before but were now somehow hugging, somehow kissing, laughing along with them as our words tumbled out in a crazy jargon all our own, sharing their meals, meeting their grandkids, playing accordion and mandolin with strangers, with friends, with people we'll never forget? Yeah, we did that, too.

I boarded a plane once and it was the last flight out of Houston, there were storms all along the east coast. They had just closed the Charlotte airport, closed down DC. Philadelphia was the last airport open, and everyone heading east was filing onto the last plane out of town. No luggage. No carry-ons, even. My handbag - along with my cell phone - was hastily stowed overhead by the flight attendant. I had nothing to do. So I decided to have a deliberate experience of place and turned and said hello to the man sitting next to me.

The flight was four hours. You've never experienced - at least, I hope you've never experienced - turbulence like that. Whoever cleared us for takeoff back in Texas was being cursed out by everyone else on that plane. But not seats 2C and 2B. Not us.

The plane landed in Philly, in an absolute deluge. They were struggling to get their own planes off the ground before the lightning struck, so we sat on an active tarmac for another two hours, babies crying, flight attendants trying to keep people in their seats, trying to keep everyone calm. But my new friend and I hadn't even noticed it was raining.

When I got on that plane, I could have sat down next to a ladies' man catching the connecting flight home from Vegas, or an intolerable boor selling multi-level marketing toothpaste at $26 dollars a tube. But I didn't. I sat down next to, really, one of the nicest human beings I have ever met. And we hit it off. We were friends in the first five minutes. After ten, we were telling each other our favorite childhood memories. After 20, the saddest moments of our lives. It was like we had always been friends, just picked up the threads of a conversation we had started years ago, a lifetime ago, in another life. Like we were from the same star.

And I would have missed all that. Sure, if I had never flown to Texas in the first place, none of this ever would have happened. But I also could have missed out if I had simply had my phone. As close as I was to forming this new friendship - literally, only inches away - I would have missed out on it. Never said hi, never stepped outside of myself and experienced the complexity, the simplicity, the beauty of life itself.

I tell my kids, err on the side of being there. Not just for the big stuff - weddings and funerals - but all the stuff that makes up life. When your friends don't make the county team or get into their first choice of a college or go to the prom, after all. Be there for them then. But really be there. Drive across town, walk across the room. Hold a hand or (better yet) engulf them in a hug that says, right now, in this moment, in all your uncertainty and un-success, I'm with you now. I love you now. I love you here. In this place.

For real.

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