Nicole Long, poet and friend, sent me this quote from Henri Nouwen:

A few times in my life I had the seemingly strange sensation that I felt closer to my friends in their absence than in their presence. When they were gone, I had a strong desire to meet them again but I could not avoid a certain emotion of disappointment when the meeting was realized. Our physical presence to each other prevented us from a full encounter. As if we sensed that we were more for each other than we could express. As if our individual concrete characters started functioning as a wall behind which we kept our deepest personal selves hidden. The distance created by a temporary absence helped me to see beyond their characters and revealed to me their greatness and beauty as persons which formed the basis of our love.

I know what Nouwen is describing, and I have experienced these feelings at various times in my life. Why the physical domain impacts certain relationships more than others, I do not know. And as the availability of other modes of interaction that do not include a physical presence–phone and online for example–but can deliver their own version of intimacy, the “in the flesh” version of human interaction is morphing as well.

This is a more complex issue than the often voiced concern about people spending too much time online. Nouwen was a priest (often compared with Thomas Merton and Teilard de Chardin) who wrote a great deal about solitude as well as the concomitant longing and need for community. He has been described as a man who had many friends but constantly struggled with a profound sense of loneliness. And while this quote could be viewed as a psychological indicator of his personal struggle with intimacy, it hits on something much more profound.

Walls that protect our “deepest personal selves” appear all the time, and what works to get past them has often surprised me. Like most people, I have intensely personal relationships with people I connect with online, people I have never met in the flesh. An emotional intimacy emerges in those online interactions that would take much longer to achieve in person. And while some of those relationships may be able to transmogrify into full bodied friendships, others may not. But having these options for connection, disembodied though they may be, is like finding a whole new wing of your house you didn’t know was there.