The other day I learned something startlingly new about young people. So startling, in fact, that I was quite blindsided by it. When I say young, by the way, I mean the first generation to come of age in a world surrounded by—indeed, defined by—computers. The generation, that is, of my own children. And most of my students, too. We call them Millennials—digital natives—whose online lives have left them more or less marooned in cyberspace. The essential unreality of which they do not seem either to notice or to mind.
However, that is not what I learned about them. The discovery I made is that for all the social media they appear constantly to traffic in, they really do not like to interact with other people. So determined are they to avoid actual human contact that many of them now shun even the telephone, perceiving it as somehow invasive of their private space. They much prefer to text.
I call this a sea change. What tipped me off was finding out that when young people order things (pizza, for example), they don’t like to do it over the phone. They’ll order online. That way, they don’t have to talk to anyone.
Is this, I wonder, the new normal? And if so, what does it mean? It is certainly not anything I’d recommend. Or even recognize, come to think of it. And not because, given my pathetically inadequate computer skills, I’ve no choice but to pick up the phone to order a pizza. It is because my tendency is not to pick up the phone at all, but to go out and buy the damn pizza. Why is that? Well, for the same reason I’ve resisted doing online courses, even when the money is good. It’s because I prefer real presence. I am not one of those fussy little Cartesians, you see, whose notion of a good time is dining out on clear and distinct ideas. Give me a thick juicy steak every time. And there is nothing more satisfying, let me tell you, than sharing it with a real person (even if you’re buying). Not some disincarnate spirit, mind you, who is only virtually there; but a flesh and blood human being. Who wants to have pizza with a computer?
Heaps, one would think, to judge from the look of the people I see in restaurants these days, their eyes glazed over like so many holiday hams. Imagine, if you please, a room full of young couples, each seated opposite the other, yet whose minds are entirely elsewhere, co-opted by computer screens. Why do they not speak to one another? They’re worse than Robinson Crusoe, who at least had the good sense to await the happy arrival of Friday. Without someone to talk to, his life was incomplete. And, yes, like bowling alone, it’s a pretty cheap date, but with a solipsist?
On the other hand, let’s agree that if you’re not going to engage your partner in actual conversation, you’re probably not going to fight, either. And maybe that’s a good thing. But it also means: you will never have to say please, or thank you. Is that a good thing? Only if what you’re looking for in a relationship is something along the lines of an ATM. And that could not possibly be a good thing. Consider what happens at your local ATM. There you are, credit card in hand, pressing all the right buttons and, bingo, the money comes out. And not once did you have to look at another human being. What could be more efficient? Not only were you certain that the cash was on hand, squirreled safely away within the bowels of the bank, but that you had every right to remove it from the machine. Oh, yes, and you never even had to thank Mr. ATM for spitting out the sum you required. Perfect, right?
Of course, if you were so hapless as to have to enter the building, and there engage an actual bank teller in order to get your money, you might have to say thanks after all. The point is, one never needs to show gratitude to a machine. Or, for that matter, to a person, so long as you treat them the same way. Which is never a good thing. And so to keep that from happening, to hold reductionism at bay, it is supremely necessary to step out of cyberspace from time to time. How otherwise will we ever get to experience gratitude if we never get the chance to give it some exercise?
“Let us ask,” writes Romano Guardini in his wonderful little book on The Virtues, “what is necessary so that gratitude may become possible.” The answer is easy, he says, even if, as often happens, the application is not. “Gratitude and petition are possible only between an ‘I’ and a ‘Thou.’ We cannot thank a law, a board, or a company … for gratitude is the expression of a personal encounter in human need.”
In other words, here is this cheese and pepperoni pizza I’ve made (hundreds more to follow); and there you are eager to eat it. And even if it is a business transaction, it is also something more, because neither of us is merely a machine, the one for baking the pizza pie, the other who ponies up to buy the pie. Thus a show of gratitude, even if it be ever so modest, is always appropriate.
In addition to the personal element, there must also be genuine freedom for any expression of gratitude to take place. Otherwise, says Guardini, any gesture of thanksgiving would be quite meaningless. Who can give thanks in a situation that is not voluntary? Is one ever free at the end of a gun? It’s bad enough when some crook divests you of your wallet. Intolerably so when, having just handed over the cash, you’re expected to thank him.
And, finally, Guardini reminds us, in either giving or getting a gift, there must be in place some fundamental and abiding sense of reverence, of respect for the other who stands in need of the gift you are giving. A person who, like all of us, as Plato would say, remains “a child of poverty.” Without that recognition and respect for another’s dignity, everything turns to ashes. “If there is no mutual respect,” Guardini tells us, “gratitude perishes and turns to resentment.”
True asking and giving, true receiving and thanking … are human in the deepest sense of the word. They are based upon the consciousness that we stand together in our need. Accidentally here and now one person has something, the other does not; one person can, the other cannot. Tomorrow it may be the other way around.
At the profoundest level, plunging us into the very depths of the metaphysical, of being itself, real gratitude takes place when we are moved to give thanks, not for anything another may have done, but simply because they are, they exist. Pope Benedict provides a stunning expression of this when, in a Christmas Address to the Roman Curia some years back, he simply said, “It is good that you exist.” Enlarging upon the point, he writes in Principles of Catholic Theology: “It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes acceptable. Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if it is to subsist… If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: ‘It is good that you exist’—must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love.”
It is, let’s face it, the only truly convincing way to justify the joy that wells up when love comes to awaken the heart. To exclaim, in high lyric accent, that it is very good indeed that this other does exist. It is not something you want to say in a text. Next time, therefore, you make a dinner date, leave the computer behind. And be grateful you have someone to share that steak with.
(Photo credit: iStock)