Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Our Distrust of Relationships

"...our investment in technology reflects our distrust of relationships."

So says Samuel Wells in his chapter on human cloning. Is he right? And if he is, are we right to distrust relationships? I can't help but think of House's recurring line during the first three seasons of the show - "Everybody lies". That was his dogma. It was his truth about humanity - a truth that made technology the only thing to be really trusted and which turned human beings into mechanisms requiring mechanical solutions.

But if Terminator 2 has taught me anything -- and I'd be lying if I said that it hasn't -- it's that more and better technology will not ultimately lead to progress. In fact it may well lead to a disaster of apocalyptic proportions.

Walter Brueggemann's diagnosis of society moves along the same lines as Wells's:

Our society is now tempted to solve societal (and therefore personal) problems by old, predictable remedies. These remedies often seek to reduce solutions to power or technology or to more commodity goods. Thus political threat is countered by more military power. Thus problems of illness or aging are managed by more technology. Thus loneliness is overcome by more commodity goods, whether cars, new information technology, or beer. 

Of course it seems churlish to be having a go at technology, given that one of the givens of the quest for "more technology" is that Life ought to be prolonged. But as Wells notes, the "Life" in question is more the Platonic form than the kind of life that really is life. Thus you can have a doctor whose waking hours are dedicated to prolonging the existence of others, but whose life itself is a misery and whose opinion of those he is saving is that either they're as miserable as he is, or their lying.

In our knowledge economy, pride of place is given to those with the intellectual capacity to control and advance technology. Good friends, people who care about other human beings, are distrusted or seen as nice but useless. "Caring is out of fashion", writes Wells. We want solutions and cures, all the while belittling the more difficult task of coming alongside a fellow human being who is suffering and simply being there, however "useless" that might make us feel.

Into society's current handling of political threat, illness and lonliness, Brueggemann speaks the following words:

What we know, however, is that the most elemental human issues -- social and personal -- do not admit to such resolution. The reason is that human persons in human community are designed for serious, validating relationships that call for mutual care and responsibility; no amount of power, technology, or commodity can be substituted for relatedness. Thus Israel's great confession of faith is that at the bottom of reality is the fidelity of a holy God who seeks relatedness...

The King's Speech illustrates the power of "serious, validating relationships". The king in question has a chronic speech impediment, and has gone to every doctor in town who have tried every mechanical solution to fix the problem. His wife eventually takes him to a quirky man who promises to help. But help doesn't come in the form we think it might. It turns out (spoiler alert, but not really) that the man paid to cure the king has no credentials. He is not a doctor, an academic, a highly trained speech therapist. He is merely a man who found he could help people by giving them a voice. The king's issue was deeper than a spech impediment; his issue was a complete lack of a friendship. Having a friend gave the king a voice that somebody else considered worth hearing. And so the healing process could begin, though the wounds were not quite what the king anticipated.

There is a scene in House that also comes to mind. In the episode it feautres in, Dr House is confroned by a boy with severe autism. The child's parents have brought him to House because they fear something unusual -- that is, something other than the autism -- is the matter. House can't help but notice the oppressed look on the parents' faces throughout the episode. He sees their misery as they watch their child struggle to relate to those around him. They appear hopeless. The boy himself won't -- can't -- even look people in the eyes. He spends his time staring down at a hand held video game as the world drifts by.

House eventually cures the child of a potentially fatal illness, but as he sits with his "friend" Wilson he sees the parents reunite with their child and is completely underwhelmed by their reaction. One would expect them to register a "10" on the happiness scale having just been told that their son is going to live after all, but House suggests that they barely hit a "7".

The parents and child walk over to House and Wilson in order to say a thank you and a goodbye before returning to their life of "quiet desperation". The boy's head is still stuck in the video game as usual, but for one quite unexpected and brilliant moment he removes his gaze from the tiny screen and stares directly into House's eyes. House is transfixed. He looks back into the child's eyes, because, well, what else can he do? He relates to the boy in one of the few ways the boy can relate. Watching from the sidelines, the parents' faces are lit up with wide smiles and eyes. They walk away with their son with renewed hope.

"Now that's a 10", says Wilson.

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