I admit it. I used to be one of those haughty, judgmental types who didn’t own a cellphone and dismissed friends’ annoying requests to join Facebook, read that one blog post that would change my life or get an iPad so I could track my daily intake of calories.
Then I got sick. Really sick. I went from a healthy 41-year-old religion professor, wife and mother to a virtual invalid with a broken back, a stage IV cancer diagnosis and a lousy prognosis for the future.
It was during those gray winter days of 2009 that I had a conversion experience about the power of being connected virtually, through digital technology.
Even though I continue to worry about things like cyberbullying and addictions to digital devices, I can’t deny that virtual connectivity during the worst times of my illness offered a lifeline of support, love and access to the world beyond my small, debilitated life.
I, judger of digital technology, was buoyed and sustained by virtual interactions. I was converted to the healing power of the support I received via digital communications. And with a zeal common to converts, I’m out to spread the news to any and all who will listen.
In life before cancer, I wholeheartedly believed that virtual connection was a poor substitute for in-person, physical presence, especially for those who are hurting. But cancer came along and rearranged most things in my life, including my views of digital connectivity.
Sociologist of illness Arthur Frank observes that “during illness, people who have always been bodies have distinctive problems continuing to be bodies, particularly continuing to be the same sorts of bodies they have been.”
Living with a serious illness means learning to live with loss of control, especially of and in your body. When it’s your very sick body that’s out of control, being physically present with others can be discomforting, embarrassing, even humiliating.
In those early days of the diagnosis, when my experiences of my body were overwhelmingly ones of betrayal, being able to engage in virtual interactions alongside the face-to-face ones played a vital role in helping me cultivate a desire to keep on living.
Online, I could write in full sentences and not sound like I was dying. I could have virtual conversations without having to negotiate the I-can’t-believe-you’re-that-sick gaze. Tears I shed at the keyboard did not prevent me from saying what I was trying to say in an online post. And what I posted still sounded like the me I was familiar with, the me that was not wholly overcome by the stigma and diminishment caused by advanced-stage cancer.
Virtual interactions encouraged me to hold on to hope that I was not completely defined by the limitations of my very sick body. While my life would have been immeasurably diminished if I had had only virtual interactions during that time of serious debilitation, I was helped in powerful, life-affirming ways through virtual interactions with those who care about and for me.
And these experiences with virtual support have rearranged my view of what it means to be present to other people’s pain. I teach religion for a living, and in Christianity, the church is often called the “body of Christ,” called to care for the most vulnerable members of the body (1 Corinthians 12:22-26). I think we need to start talking about “the virtual body of Christ,” to help us pay more attention to the many ways in which we can support one another through the toughest times of our lives.
Deanna’s latest book, The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World, has just been released by Abingdon Press. For more information, go to: http://www.abingdonpress.com/product/9781501815188#.V_UOG_ArLIU