17 November 2009


The newest member of my staff at St. Andrew's is Ric Shewell. He began his work as our new Youth and Family Ministries Director on 1 September. Ric fits the image of a young, twenty-something guy who is up on technology and involved in life as a relatively newlywed. He reminds guys like me (getting extremely close to age 59) that we did, indeed, once possess that kind of energy, resilience and spunk. He is just a year older than our elder daughter. It's a scary thing!

Ric enthusiastically announced yesterday that the New Oxford American Dictionary had chosen as its Word of the Year for 2009 -- "unfriend." This word, he shared, was brought into contemporary useage by Facebook. It describes the action by which a person can disconnect from another person who has been designated a "friend" in the Facebook community. While I could not immediately find the said named item on my Facebook page or those of my list of friends, I decided there had to be something to this.

I did what my best scientific and theological training prepared me to do: research. Monday evening found me reading a variety of articles from places like "SFGate" and "The Week," etc. Sure enough, all those sites had articles reporting that the NOAD had, indeed, named "unfriend" the Word of the Year for 2009. And, yep, it was due to the community building Facebook system that this word found its origin. Or, I wonder, had it?

More research. This time I accessed tools that one still has to gather on the shelves of one's personal library or the library of a college or public library (yes, Ric, books can still be found that are not electronic...take it from a geezer like me who has hundreds of them). Lo, I found the term "unfriended" as a 19th century word that reflected what happens when one is berieved after losing a family to calamity. Example: One journal from an 1848 wagon train on the California Trail reads, "The sickness swept through our numbers so fast that men and women were unfriended in the loss of their entire families..." What goes around, comes around.

In this case, I sat for a long time in my special prayer place early this morning and pondered this word, "unfriend." It is a singularly cold word. It has such finality. It has such abruptness. In my reflection, I could see how, in the years of westward expansion on this continent, life could truly have abruptness and finality. It was a harsh, unforgiving and often downright hostile environment. The term "unfriend" would aptly describe the almost instant desolation of something like cholera or murder (attacks of various kinds) or drowning in a river crossing. Then the word seems to lose visibility. It is almost never used until the past three years -- with the advent of cyber-systems created to bring folks together. Without any kind of prelude or warning, a person can be "unfriended" by a whole host of those who had, until that moment, been listed as "friends." One young person describes being "unfriended" by his college roommate, because they had an argument over leftovers in the refrigerator. Not only did his roommate unfriend him; but he convinced most of his other friends to use the "delete button" on their cyber-relationships. Massively cold!

We live in a world where people can be unfriended in a heartbeat: a click of the mouse, a shot from a weapon triggered by someone a half a world away, a "word" put out that destroys an individual's character, family and career. We have become very impersonal in the manner of our relationships. If we can unfriend with the click of a mouse, why can't we just turn our relationship with another person on or off like a switch. The term, "I'm off you," is something like saying, "I hereby unfriend you." Relationships these days seem really cheap and extremely fragile at best.

Lest I spiral into a place of sounding cynical, I want to offer some hopeful thoughts. Words carry power, but we don't have to be enslaved to those words. It's our choice. For instance, getting out of cyberspace and into a regular book keeps one honest in terms of touching what we learn and come to know. Even my Kindle needs to be put away, so that I can grapple with the weight of a good book.

Every human being is like me. I want to be loved, appreciated, held, touched and enjoyed across the table with a cup of coffee or a meal. Every one of us essentially wants the same thing. We need those things in order to have a truly authentic self-concept.

When things aren't going well, try taking a pen and applying it to real paper in order to reflect thoughts. Better yet, sit down with a person who seems to have generated bad feelings and dare ask the question: "What has changed in our relationship that seems to be causing pain?" The hard work of coming face-to-face is essential to maintaining a sense of true Self and an appreciation of the reality and fragility of another.

Even on Facebook, wouldn't it be better to write the person a personal message letting them know you need to break off the cyber-relationship for a time and why. THEN, give them the opportunity to reply? Give it some thought. Better yet, give it a try.

Maybe this Word of the Year will be short-lived.



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