The Limits of Zoom

For many of us, this has been a year of rapid adaptation. Most significantly, adapting to a digital way of interacting with one another. As an organisation that is all about ‘face-to-face encounter’ and immersive residential experiences, it has been a fascinating journey to question how we can respond with integrity to the change of circumstances and shifting needs of those we exist to serve. We resisted jumping on the digital bandwagon before spending a good amount of time questioning ‘to what extent is our work even possible online?’ Is it possible to build trust across difficult divides in a virtual environment rather than a shared physical space?

We had already started a process of distilling the essence of our approach to reconciliation into 12 actionable habits, which we have enjoyed sharing in its most simple form through our Habit Advent Calendar and in its fuller form through our virtual programme journey. And we had already started to think about how we could develop a digital platform to support the ongoing collaboration of our global network beyond their residential experience. These projects have ended up being well timed for the necessary migration to the digital domain and have led to creative ways of developing some digital programming that remains rooted in our DNA. Our approach to ‘digitalisation’ has not been to try and replicate what we do online, but rather to reconsider how we can bring people together across divides in the new landscape that COVID-19 has revealed. In the same way that needs are always changing over time, it has been good to be present to and respond to this year’s changes in the world around us.

With so much to celebrate as 2020 moves towards its close, it also feels important to voice how challenging the journey has been at times, and in many ways continues to be. Despite courageous faces of 'ploughing forward' and jokes here and there about ‘death-by-zoom’, I have at times been fatigued by the hopeful optimism that suggests that digital alternatives even come close to the preeminence of being with, before, and transformed by, the face of the other.

I discovered a new word this week: 'Luddite'. The Luddites were a band of 19th-century textile workers who, having found their painstakingly acquired highly developed skillset in weaving to have been made redundant by technological advances, decided to go about destroying textile machinery in protest. I empathise with the Luddites. They had a craft that gives them meaning and significance, not to mention a job, made redundant by the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of modern-day machinery.

The Luddites have at times symbolised much of my own angst and frustration with the new order of things. With screen fatigue and COVID-19 continuing to restrict the residential mode of our work, I have often been tempted to give my laptop a good welly against the wall! Fortunately, and hopefully, whilst I empathise with the Luddites, we are not in their situation. Their craft was superseded by technological advances, but our work is only temporarily stunted by our current circumstances, and this has in fact offered opportunities to diversify the modes in which we communicate and share what we so believe in. The world is changing and will probably never be the same. However, so long as there remains a physical world to exist in it will always need a message of reconciliation, one that fosters face-to-face encounter and that requires the facilitation of brave spaces where we can meet and learn from those who are different to ourselves.

As with all matters in life, I find it important to root reflections in my religious framework. To share some thoughts from my Christian tradition, I have found it helpful to look to the model and example of Jesus, and discovered the incarnation (God becoming human in the person of Jesus) a particularly helpful lens through which to reconfigure my understanding and behaviour of being with the other. I am reminded and infinitely reassured that the mode of 'being with' is an existential necessity, and therefore must be a continuing part of life 'post-COVID'. At Christmas, Christians remember the significance of God’s choosing to associate himself with the world he created by becoming human himself and modelling a radically different way of being with. In Jesus, God reveals the depth of his relational nature by being present with us, eating with us, conversing with us, learning with us, laughing with us, working with us, suffering with us. Yet this extraordinary presence 'with us' changes in the post-resurrection era, one that is filled with life and hope, yet he is not physically present. The Spirit of Christ mediates his presence to us tangibly - it can be known, felt and experienced, yet Christ is not actually sat in my living room. What this assertion attests is, just as Christians yearn for the physical return of Christ and lament his absence, we are still ministered to powerfully and tangibly by his Spirit.  

This raises a pertinent question which I share with my brothers and sisters of other faith traditions and none: how does the spirit of Rose Castle Foundation model and enact being with one another and the world as we await the return of normality? How do any of us seek to do this?

There is a reason why face-to-face encounter is such a core hallmark value of the Foundation, and central to why we sought to secure a dedicated space in Rose Castle to facilitate these powerful encounters. Being in front of the face of the other, unfiltered by screens and software, is preeminent. It changes and forms us in ways unimaginable by digital counterparts. So then, three questions I continue to ask myself:

  • How can I appropriately lament the current circumstances without being a sap and a drain on those I live and work with?
  • How can I act in order to 'be with' the world whilst our physical being with it is off the table? How can I do this without getting on yet another Zoom meeting?!
  • How can I continue to express longing and hope for the day that we can return to 'being with' others, articulating this as the most full expression of 'what we do' whilst also continuing to make the most of the present circumstantial opportunities?

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