Ecclesiastes is a very interesting read. Over and over again, we're told that everything is "meaningless." It's meaningless! There's no point to it. Everything under the sun is utterly meaningless. Man has always been searching for meaning, so to say that things are meaningless was the ultimate discouragement. That thing you're searching for? It doesn't exist.
But I think if the writer were writing today, it might be more appropriate that he say not that everything is meaningless, but that everything is senseless. Because even though we're still looking for meaning, in a sense, and I think we always will, we live in a culture today that is ruled by our senses and yet, they mean less than ever. I'm going to spend some time this week expounding on that thought.
Take, for example, our sense of touch. We live more than ever in a touch-based world. You touch your phone to turn it on, to check your email, to make a phone call. We type on virtual keyboards. We dial on virtual touch pads. I recently myself made the upgrade to a smart phone. Not really because I wanted to but because that's the way the world is going. And I hate it.
Here's what I hate about it: if I were ever to find myself in a serious emergency in which my functionability was compromised, I would be completely at a loss. Let's say that I wreck my car (heaven forbid) and am stuck in a ditch somewhere, trapped between the pieces of crushed fiberglass that used to constitute my vehicle. And let's say I can move my hand enough to feel around and find my phone, but I cannot get that phone within my line of sight. That phone is of absolutely no use to me. I can't dial it. On a traditional phone, even on a traditional cell phone, I would be able to feel around for the buttons and figure out how to make a 9-1-1. On a digital phone? Not a chance.
If I'm sitting in front of a touch screen computer (and I'm not, thank God), it's the same story. It's not just that I can touch the screen; I have to deliberately touch the screen. I have to know what I'm doing. I have to know how I'm navigating. Otherwise, it's powerful, yet meaningless, touch. In a virtual everything, we've lost our ability to feel our way through the world.
And in fact, we're getting into a world where all our touch is digital. All our touch is virtual. And all our touch is...meaningless.
Most everyone has a Facebook account. On this social media platform, we share our stories with one another and offer encouragement and strength, among many other things. But then, say, we run into someone from Facebook in the Wal-Mart or at church or wherever. How many of us will still take someone's hand, give them that reassuring touch, and say, "I'm with you"? Most won't. Most of us figure that we "liked" that heartbreaking story on Facebook or that we commented on it in some fashion, and that this person knows that we are there for them. Most of us have come to believe that cyber contact is still contact, that we can reach out and touch someone through our computer screens and that it's just the same thing.
I've always known how powerful touch is. It's the most powerful sense we have - to touch and to be touched. It's one of the most meaningful things we can do for one another, to reach out and hold a hand or to offer a hug or whatever. But even I am prone in my digital world to forget this a lot of the time.
One of the things that struck me the hardest when I began working as a chaplain was coming back into contact with real contact, coming to understand anew the real power of touch in our world. The first time I reached over and took a patient's hand...it wasn't enough any more to "like" a status. I couldn't take a tablet in my hands and think any more how "cool" it was that I could control a computer with the tip of my finger. Because it's not real touch. It can't tell me anything about my world. It can't, by itself, even help me live through this place. It's powerful, but it's pointless. It doesn't mean anything.
It's senseless. It's senseless touch. It is touch without sensing, touch without understanding what touch even means. It has so changed our understanding of the tangible that we're all becoming phantoms. It's heartbreaking.
And touch is just the beginning. This senselessness extends to every facet of our ability to interact with our world - it extends to our sight, to our taste, to our hearing, to our smell. It extends even to our knowing and our understanding. It's everywhere. More on this tomorrow...