The Internet can often be a source of stress for those going through hard times. While it can connect us to the world, it can also bring the pain of others into sharper focus. Writer J.F. Riordan contemplates her own place in this struggle, in her essay “Prayers for a Stranger.”
I recently realized that my life had become rather narrow, and that music, once the central focus of my existence, had been reduced to passive listening. So, most days, now, I spend some time playing the piano badly.
It doesn't matter that I can't play as well as I used to when I was serious, just that I play. It is both engaging and mentally clarifying.
To assist in building this new habit, I am using an app that tactfully nudges and rewards for building habits. The app also includes a portion I don't generally use, an opportunity to be part of the app's "community" of people, messaging other who are working on the same things.
These kinds of things are not to my taste. Community means real people that you can see and touch, not invisible strangers. But last night, I casually glanced through this section, and along with the people needing to study for their exams, or lose weight, I came across a message from someone trying to escape an addiction to meth. It was more than a cry for help, it was a howl of despair.
We all live in our little bubbles. We write. We sleep. We go to work. We make dinner. We try to be kind. We are people, presumably, of good will. But then something happens, and the reality of real people in the anguish of suffering and surviving breaks through without warning.
Modern life expands our boundaries beyond our capacity to cope. We are not meant to bear the suffering of the whole world. We are meant to see what is before us and act. This is why anonymous technology and nonstop news is so hollow and soul-crushing. It puts the suffering of the world before us yet makes us powerless to help. But this was different. It was a stranger in a virtual world, but a voice of such searing pain that it could not be ignored.
So, I wrote. And I prayed. And I wrote that I prayed. And I waited to hear if there would be some response.
There was none. I can contemplate reasons why there was none, but there is not one thing I can do about it.
Disembodied words are no substitute for being present. Maybe there can be some small comfort in being in the prayers of a stranger. But there are some things for which no comfort is possible.