(from the Hitda-Codex, 11th century, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
John 8: 3-11:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
The Gospel story of the woman who had been caught in adultery is one of the best known stories of the ministry of Jesus, and is one that has an over-used and sometimes misused quote that gets lost in its over-use: "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone." (Let's face it, we tend to hear it in the King James Version language.)
But I've been thinking more lately about the story itself, in terms of "What if?"
I've always been amazed in that story that no one--not in a fit of pique, or in self-righteousness, or just to cause trouble--threw a rock. That little irreverent part of me remembers the old joke where this scene is played out: Jesus says the tag line, and suddenly from the back of the crowd a stone flies through the air and clobbers the woman upside the head.
"MOM!" Jesus yells. "Sometimes you really hack me off!"
Whatever Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger must have been a really effective piece of written communication. But we also have to remember when he wrote it, everyone at the scene also had full benefit of his demeanor, simultaneous verbal communication, his facial expressions, the tone of his voice, and his body language.
I shudder to think what might have happened had this all been left up to a group e-mail. I'm pretty sure an e-mail rock would have been tossed, and when it was all said and done, it would have gone viral and the woman would have been lying there dead as a doornail.
Jesus managed to keep a potentially explosive crowd under control--that time. However, when we get to Holy Week, we see how the crowd mentality can go haywire.
I've had some interesting musings in the last couple of weeks about "the power of mis-communication," in terms of the now-firmly-entrenched-and-here-to-stay world of e-mail and social networking, combined with some recent experiences with anonymity. They were situations where I realized the world of "instant communication" is a two-edged sword, and how the bottom line is this: To communicate with intention often takes time--but our expectation in the electronic world is for an instant answer.
It caused me to re-think some things about my own self-perceptions of my ability to effectively communicate, and how the magic of electronic communication is a two-edged sword.
I'm going to go a little "shaggy dog" here, but bear with me.
The thing that got me started thinking about this was a recent round of anonymous student evaluations. I'll be blunt--some were just downright nasty and demeaning, yet when they rated aspects of the course numerically, they were good. At first, I thought it was just me. But I really have not changed my style or demeanor or expectations of what I expect students to be responsible for in their own lives in the past decade. I've always pretty much been of the "Ultimately, you are responsible for your learning," school. I'm responsible for showing medical students HOW to get in a pattern of learning it, but I am not responsible for how much of it sticks in their brains. That may not be what students like to hear, but there it is. I've always been the "mean" teacher at the beginning to them, but over the course of the year they usually soften on that stance and get that I was consistent with my boundaries between "your responsibility" and "my responsibility." But this year, there seemed to be no signs of some of them getting that. The comments oozed resentfulness, both with me, and with each other.
But I got to talking to one of my colleagues in another department, and discovered that department got blasted just as badly as mine did. We both agreed it was the most vitriolic set of evaluations we'd ever seen. We've pondered the duality of how people who are going to spend their careers allegedly showing compassion to others can be downright vicious when handed the cover of anonymity.
Then I got to pondering a weird pair of dual relationships I have on Facebook. One is with a friend I'm very close to in real life, and find an incredibly kind and caring person, yet this person is always hacking me off on Facebook for sounding flip and calloused in the comments. I've had to step in and back this person off of some of my other Facebook friends because these comments are often misunderstood by people who don't personally know this person. Yet in real life, we are talking about a funny, clever, helpful, go-the-extra-mile type of person.
Another Facebook friend is the polar opposite. It is a person I debated for a long time to accept or ignore the friend request. In real life, I find this person...well...an annoying, opinionated know-it-all whose history has been to antagonize people I have to deal with on a daily basis. I had to step in and set some limits in my live-time life on how this person interacts with people whom I depend on their good will. But, as it turns out, this person is the epitome of utter charm and helpfulness on Facebook. My fears were unfounded. In fact, I wish I did not have to deal with this person in real life, and only on Facebook!
But it got me to pondering the duality of "the electronic relationship," vs. "the real life relationship." Two Facebook friends who seem like four separate people. Medical students who mostly speak to me with respect and courtesy, who go Jekyll and Hide on people when given the cover of anonymity.
A little bit of Googling got me this article on an aspect of "the psychology of cyberspace." It's an old article--1998, revised in 2003--but it has some very valid points and I invite you to read it when you have some time to digest it.
What it taught me was the tag line of our Gospel story--"Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone."
I came to realize three big things in the way I tend to use electronic communication:
1. I had recognized that others do some degree of transference in the fact I tend to keep work and play separate in my e-mails, with a work account and a personal account, and try to clarify things to minimize that, including setting rigid boundaries on what goes on with my work account, but I did not realize I do some transference based on other's lack of response to me.
I tell medical students, "I don't check my school e-mail on weekends, I don't answer questions about the test from 48 hours prior to the exam up to the exam, and I don't respond to Facebook messages that are thinly disguised trolls for what's on the exam." I tell them that because this generation tends to expect me to drop everything and answer them instantly, and they don't really see how easily they can blur the boundary between my work life and my personal life.
But what I did not realize is why other people's e-mails with "no subject" put my teeth on edge. I have come to realize I tend to let "no subject" e-mails intrude into my life, because I don't know what they want. Is it important or urgent? Or is it just small stuff? Then when I open it, worried it's "important," and it's not, I get irked. I also realized that although I don't do the "no subject" thing, my mind gets to rambling, and I tend to stray from the subject--sometimes repeatedly in the same e-mail. So it's possible others think I am slipping one in on them, with a subject that turns out not to be the bulk of the e-mail.
I also did not realize how deeply, when I am feeling hurt, angry, lonely, or tired, I can tend to transfer a delayed response to an e-mail as "They're ignoring me" (when in reality they're busy or maybe haven't even seen it) or perceive a terse answer as a curt answer, when maybe they were just being terse because they're busy, or it's 2 a.m., or they're distracted.
2. I tend to use e-mail more than the phone partially because I desire to let the other person deal with something at their convenience rather than interrupting them, partially because I am projecting my dislike of being interrupted by the phone, and paritally because I am insecure about my spoken language skills--but sometimes that gets mis-interpreted as "I am being evasive."
This probably has more to do with my compulsive nature. I tend to get frustrated when I am interrupted "in the middle of something" by the phone. Two decades of frequently being "on call" also have trained me to be somewhat resentful if the phone interruption is not work-related. Like Pavlov's dogs, I have been trained to have that adrenalin rush when I am on call and the phone rings. Coming down off that rush when the interruption is not urgent has a certain amount of strain with it. I am so resentful of being interrupted by the phone, I tend to project others will have that same irritation. So I tend to prefer to let the other person answer me in a way that is at their convenience.
But that begs another question: If it wasn't important enough for me to call that person, was the e-mail that important? Well...sometimes yes, sometimes no. But maybe I ought to self-filter the "no's."
3. I tend to over-divulge and over-explain in e-mails when something feels uncertain, or when the recipient's feelings or opinions are not totally "readable" because I know the other person can't see me--which can be over-interpreted as a level of distress or unease above my actual level, and then I get in trouble for "crying wolf."
That might have been the most bitter pill of all to have to swallow in this whole pondering.
I tend to lack self-esteem about my ability to communicate certain feelings "in person." I have a tendency in spoken conversation to simply resort to profanity when I feel frustrated or can't immediately put a name on an emotion. When I am unsure or uneasy, I tend to come off as "angry" in my speech when I'm not. I tend to say nothing when I am not sure "what the appropriate response" is and my silence is sometimes interpreted as resistance or defiance when in reality it's "fear of saying the thing that will make a tense conversation worse." I had several nervous tics as a child and tense conversations bring them out.
So to accept the possibility I can be mis-interpreted just as badly in my written communication floored me. I was kind of indignant about it, actually. "What do you mean?" I thought. "I make a living transmitting written information through a pathology report--and I'm good at it. I blog and people connect with it." But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized I'm not as effective with written words as my ego wanted me to think I was--and I have strings of communication failures to show for it, involving a variety of people.
But ok...back to where this is in terms of our Gospel story.
Jesus averted a tragedy for this woman because he communicated the presence of God in a way that was effective because he communicated with intent--both in his words and in whatever mysterious thing he wrote in the dirt. How often do we "communicate with intent?" Or do we just "communicate for the sake of making noise," and let whatever is communicated, unintentionally blow where it may?
Although I've focused on electronic communication pitfalls, the messages we speak can also be unintentional and misread no matter what the medium. What can result is a "duality" in how we engage the world. As children of God, it should be unity that is our goal, not duality--that the person who engages various aspects of the world is the same person who engages God. We have to be the person in the story who is reminded "go, and sin no more"--not the person who is itching to throw the rock. Before we complain about the duality of how others communicate with us, we need to consider the duality of our own communication with others.
We have been given the gift of the most powerful and instantaneous two way communication that has so permeated the culture, a generation ago the possibility was unthinkable. It gives us the choice to read AND respond. But do we act with intention when we use it, or do we react unintentionally with it? In what ways do we honor our Baptismal Covenant with it, and in what ways do we misuse God's good creation with it? Are we using it to love our neighbor as ourselves, or are we using it to be one up on our neighbor? Are we using it to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ through our lives and actions, or are we using it to separate people from it unintentionally? Are we using it to affirm the dignity of others, or are we using it to save our own dignity at the expense of others?
I have never been one for "New Year Resolutions," but I am one for "new goals." I have decided for myself this year that an admirable goal for me would be to "communicate with intention, not with reaction." Intention takes time, and it's important to remember that just because the technology is instantaneous, it does not demand that my response be instantaneous. Will I actually "go and sin no more?" Nah. I'm human. But can we endeavor to try? As we say in our Baptismal vows, "We will, with God's help."