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Friday, March 31, 2000
'E-talk' has its merits and its dangers, say congress speakers

By Mike Nelson

THEIR MARRIAGE WAS breaking up, a woman recently told Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ron Rolheiser, because her husband wouldn't talk to her even though he did spend several hours a day in Internet chat rooms where, the woman said, "he doesn't have to deal with real people."

"There is a real danger in becoming addicted to 'electronic connection,' " said Father Rolheiser. "As an information tool, the Internet is one of the great educational tools in the history of the planet. But it is information, not reality. It also has dangers, and one of them is its potential I for overuse to the point of forsaking actual human contact."

Father Rolheiser a teacher and author who will address two spiritually related topics at the upcoming Religious Education Congress in Anaheim is not alone in citing the mixed blessings of advanced electronic communications technology. Tools like the Internet, e-mail and chat rooms have been a boon to the spread and sharing of information, but in many cases have also been a bane to the development of personal relationships.

"In electronic communication you miss that embodied presence the visual cues, the body language, the changes in vocal tones that nothing else can communicate," says Dr. Wendy M. Wright, professor at Creighton University in Omaha, who will address families and parenting in two Congress workshops. There is no way that electronic communication can reflect the whole self. There is something about the pauses, the tonality of real conversation that is more rewarding and formative."

Wright acknowledges that e-mail communication has a useful purpose; he uses it herself to talk with her daughter who attends college out of state, and to exchange messages with her husband, a fellow faculty member at Creighton. But as the mother of 14-year-old son who enjoys com- games, she is very aware of the need to monitor the use of such "toys."

"The same is true for watching television," she says. "All technology is open to damaging influences if it is used as a substitute for what it means to be alive and real."

Father Rolheiser, as general council of his religious order, lives parts of the year in Rome and Toronto, and has family in western Canada. "And I am in touch with all three places daily," he notes. "The fact that we have such instant, almost free access to anywhere in the world is a marvelous phenomenon. Nor can we be naive and ignore that this technology and capability exists, even though I have some artist friends who refuse to use this because they say it is devoid of reality."

But Father Rolheiser readily agrees with his artist friends that electronic communication has no soul. "Even in a book, there is something on the printed page that speaks to us in a way that e-mail can't," he says. "And handwritten letters have become almost a lost art, yet there is a soul attached to these that can't come through in the generic, bland computer typeface that posts our e-mail."

Wright agrees. "Seeing the actual ink on a printed page of a personal letter makes a difference," she says. "It says to the receiver that the sender cared enough to spend time sharing part of himself. That's why I prefer that or, even better, a phone conversation with my daughter as opposed to the uniformity, the lack of intimacy with e-mail."

Both she and Father Rolheiser find that electronic communication offers great value to those who might otherwise be go unheard whether it be a shy, introverted individual or a Third World nation seeking information to compete more equitably. The key, they say, is ensuring that such communication does not become a substitute for real human contact.

"You run the same risk with anything that has the potential for addictiveness or obsession," says Father Rolheiser. "If a person finds himself able to talk to anyone in the world electronically, but can't discuss anything with his own wife in person, then there is a line that has been crossed."

Father Ron Rolheiser will speak on "The Holy Longing" (April 7) and "The Great Divorce Between Wisdom and Life" (April 8) at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim. Wendy Wright will speak on "The Charism of Parenting" (April 8) and "Ministering to Families" April 9).

Copyright 2000 The Tidings -- March 31, 2000
photo by Maria Torres

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