A Thousand Miles Wide and two inches Thick. A meditation on the importance of depth and promixity in life
One of the dangers to avoid in life is that things become 1000 miles wide and only 2 inches thick. Sometimes, it is better to have a few things, and experience them in depth, than to have many things but experience only the surface of them.
One of the most obvious and glaring examples of this, is our experience today of community. It is surely at least a thousand miles wide, indeed, its expanse is global. But how deep for rich is it? As never before, we can communicate at the global level. I am aware for example, that people who read this blog, read from all over the world, in every time zone, on every continent in many countries. On Facebook, I have 5000 friends, my YouTube page is also well visited and my recorded sermons are on iTunes. I’m “out there” in the “virtual world” and thousands also connect with me through their sites and projects and videos. I “know” and “interact” with a lot of people. Worldwide, instant communication with large numbers.
And in speaking about myself, I am likely describing you as well. Take a few pictures and, shazam , they’re out there on Google+, Picasa and Facebook and 500 people might see them in moments. If you write an article or read one, quick, (or should I say “Tweet”) you send the link and hundreds or thousands get it. Talk about communication!
But in all this communication, how deep is the communion? As never before we are “connected” but where is the experience of connectedness, of true community, of communion? Consider:
1. Most families rarely sit down to dinner together.
2. Courtship and marriage are becoming difficult and even rare. I cannot tell you how often that young people tell me today how hard it is hard to “meet” anyone. Though the opportunities seem greater due to easy transportation and communication devices, the actual “in-depth” experience implied by the term “meet” someone, is harder to come by.
3. Promiscuity, “hooking up,” are destructive of the deeper summons to intimacy, and casual dating, and/or the predominance of mere “group” gatherings, have tended to erode the older notion of “going out on a date” and dating steadily in preparation for marriage.
4. Indeed, 40% of women today have never been married, and if you poll only women age twenty-five to forty the number is closer to 60%. Most couples who do finally get married, postpone that now until the early to mid thirties. And smaller numbers of those who finally do get married struggle to stay married. Of all women married today, only 36% of them are in their first marriage. Thus, in summary, marriage is rarer, later, and less successful than ever before. 
5. Smaller families – I goes without saying, with marriage being in such crisis that birthrates have plummeted, and the internal community of the family is a smaller and less rich experience than the larger nuclear and extended families of the past.
6. Most people no longer attend community meetings and seldom interact with their neighbors. Church attendance is not the only form of community meeting that has declined, in terms of numbers attending.
7. Few roots – Most people do not live and die in the community they grew up in, or work for the same company the whole of their career, but are more constantly on the move from job to job and place to place.
8. Fewer anchor institutions – Increasing numbers of Americans do not attend a neighborhood school, but go to “magnet” schools, private schools, or other far flung schools.
9. Increasing numbers of Catholics do not go to their neighborhood parish. In fact only 25% of Catholics go to Church at all. And of those who still go, increasing numbers commute to specialized parishes featuring particular “mixes” of preaching, liturgy, ethnic factors etc. The parish a Catholic attends may often be no where near where they live.
And thus we have modern life, a thousand miles wide but often less than two inches thick, a life that is increasingly “virtual,” far flung, highly selective and insular, outwardly focused but inwardly impoverished, rich in diversity, but poor in depth, filled with acquaintances but short on intimacy.
There are innumerable factors that have given rise to this modern experience. But in this post, I’d just like to emphasize one, and that is simply, “contiguity” or proximity.
“Contiguity” is here understood as the condition of being physically close, (from the Latin Contingere meaning to touch, or border upon, con (with) + Tangere (touch)).
“Proximity” comes also from the Latin proxima meaning near or neighbor.
We human beings are “Body-persons” That is to say, we are persons whose substance includes (but is not limited to) the physical dimension of reality. Having a body locates us in space. And, since our bodies are tied to the physical order there are going to be some limits that pertain to our ability to relate to others. Though we are able to be very mobile today, working and living thirty miles apart is still a huge factor in our lives, especially if there is traffic. Where ever “there” is, it is still going to take us time to get there, and the further things are physically apart, the more difficult it is going to be for us to have deep relationships with people who are “there.”
There is an inverse proportion between physical distance and things like involvement, attachment, passion, and connectedness. And, as we widen the physical coverage of our lives, the depths of our relationships narrow and become more shallow.
As a pastor, who knows the increasing concept of the “commuter parish” it is clear, in talking with my brother priests, that is much harder to engage people to enter more deeply into parish life through things like devotions, Bible study, religious ed for children, works of charity and community involvement.
Thus, while a parish may be blessed to have those who still attend due to things like historical ties, music and liturgical preferences, and other things like preaching and leadership skills by pastor or staff, the simple fact is, “commuter parishes” often go very silent in the mid-week.
Commuter parishioners also attend mass less often. That twenty to thirty minute commute, driving by five or six parishes on the way, is very easily disturbed by things like weather, getting up a little late, not being able to find one of the kid’s shoes etc. And though a parent might be devoted to a far flung parish, say because it offers the traditional Latin Mass, their children my not be as connected, and they will not meet other children as easily, will probably not attend the parish school, or go to as many youth related events.
Why this lesser connection of commuters parishioners? Because paved roads and sleek autos aside, thirty miles is still thirty miles. Even fifteen miles is going to take at least 30 minutes. It’s just a big factor for us “body-persons.”
There’s just something about contiguity, about being physically close to what matters in our life. Without a good amount of contiguity, and proximity, depth and quality suffer a LOT. Not being connected to the physical neighborhoods in which we live, and emphasizing far flung relationships or (worse) virtual ones, mean that a lot of depth and intimacy is lost. There’s just something about living close to the people we know that helps us know them better.
And while physical locale may limit the numbers and types of people we know, the depths of those relationships can be far better. In the “old days” so many spouses met simply by going to the local burger joint, or soda shop on a frequent basis, simply meeting by shopping at the same stores, or going to the same movie theaters. In the “old days” there was a lot more emphasis on the local high school dance, the football game, and other local things like parades, carnivals, etc. And when people were met at occasions like this, there was a stronger likelihood that they’d be able to follow up and meet again since “neighborhood” is just another way of saying, “the nearby hood”
There’s just something about being physically close. It’s part of the way we are made, as spiritual AND physical beings. And wandering too far afield, or casting our net too widely, has the cumulative effect of reducing the depths to which we experience life and people.
With all our mobility and far-flung interests, both actual and “virtual” we run the risk of a life that is a thousand miles wide and two inches thick.