Virtual spaces are ’empty spaces’

What comes to mind when you hear the word “virtuality”?

For many, the internet. For some, Facebook. For others, Zoom. And of course there is FaceTime, Viber, WhatsApp and the ever-reliable mIRC… Opps! That’s been phased out —  I think I just gave away my age. 

Virtuality can simply be the state of being connected in different physical spaces via the internet. 

It’s the 40s hit of Ella Fitzerald’s “so near and yet so far”. (Gosh! The things you do to get your audience glued!)

And, yes, so near and yet so far – literally!

We could be Jeff Bezos on vacation in outer space phoning in the Amazon headquarters in Seattle, Washington for the latest sales forecast. Or closer to home, we could be that teacher running through our lessons online in our dining room in Dumaguete to a class where half are in their homes in Mindanao, ¼ are in Starbucks and the rest could be wrapping up their summer vacation in Boracay.

Yet despite the distance, we are connected. We see each other. We hear each other. And while contestable, we can even detect emotions. But this arrangement surfaces some struggles because we don’t see each other in flesh. Psycho-emotionally, we convince ourselves that something is missing. After all, our brains are wired to associate a meeting with an interaction that triggers most of the five senses — never mind the sixth.

Regardless, we aim for two things: one, to communicate, and, two, to understand. 

It is in the communicating part though where the cracks start to manifest. We eventually trip and fall into them, into our failure to not only to hear but listen, not only listen but do so with a heart. 

And like car with a busted spark plug, this breakdown in the communication process fails to ignite us further into our journey to our ultimate destination: understanding. Understanding would then continue to be an Everest-peak covered by thick fog that we struggle to summit. 

True, the rising culture of virtuality has brought people together. In the face of the pandemic, families and friends seek refuge in technology and the internet. FaceTime has become our proxy in occasions where our physical presence would have never been missed. Our kisses, hugs, laughter and tears are now transmitted virtually minus that warm touch. In some cases, we commission the emoticons as our shrinks and spokespersons. 

Amid the rising culture of virtuality is also the growing preference for convenience. We want everything at an instant – maximum benefit, minimum effort. Instead of travelling to our parent’s house to break the good news, we would just send a text message with a photo attached: “You’ve got a new grandson — congratulations!” At work, we tend to skip the core human element in coordination during meetings by summoning the modern-day god Zoom to perform every detail of planning for us. And this seeming lack of “walking an extra mile” is made more interesting by how virtuality has stamped-approved what could be a diminishing regard – albeit unconscious or subconscious – for an understanding that builds and binds human relationships. Lest I be misunderstood, I love Zoom and just about any online collaboration platform there is. 

Somehow we have interchangeably used understanding and communication; when the former is the goal and the latter is the method for reaching that goal – not the other way around. 

This dilemma becomes a critical point of reflection in this pandemic where we have millions separated from their loved ones, millions more grieving and desperate, and more than half the world in need. But in this period of human history where a touch can easily be an innocent accessory to a crime and a mask-less smile a possible biowarfare, we then ponder on the extent to which virtuality enables us to actively understand the needs of those who have the least in life. 

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India left a good reminder: “Give, but give until it hurts.” 

How do we make light of this amid a landscape of a rising culture of virtuality? Could the pandemic’s thrust of virtuality into the doorstep of every family and industry increase as well our collective empathy and culture of giving? Are we able to place ourselves in the shoes of others in a situation where we can only be transported to realities on the ground via cyberspace? 

Mother Teresa fed the homeless, aided the sick and was a family to the poor. She did so in-person, face-to-face, with the warmth of her hand and the joy and hope in her eyes and smile. 

If she were alive today (and I don’t mean to be blasphemous) and her movement significantly affected by the lockdown or quarantine, what would have happened to the thousands who turn to her for help? And mind you, there are thousands of people who are like Mother Teresa among us, many pursuing their own giving without fanfare.  

This is where the potential of virtuality for greater good comes in. It can fortify a rallying point, galvanise support, muster resources and connect people across the globe.

But virtual spaces can merely be empty spaces — in fact they are. They could even dwarf the humanity within us. Without us pushing them beyond the fences of what we are accustomed to knowing them to be for,  virtual spaces stop at being a tool simply for communication. 

Virtual spaces are then what and who we make of them. The vitality of virtuality stems from the meaning and purpose we infuse into it. We build it into a vehicle for sustainable growth and development, for intercultural understanding and peace, for humanitarian aid.  

It is when we transform virtual spaces into a monster that we can tame that we can rightly say we have given until we hurt. 

So we how do we tame that monster? It takes YOU – Y.O.U. 

A Yearning. An open mind. And uniqueness. 

Y – Yearning. It starts with an emotion, a feeling, an urge to do something. It is a reflection of our values system, of our sense of community, of our belief in ourselves to move mountains even by an inch. As virtual spaces can be a breeding ground for self-promotion and selfish motives, we distinguish ourselves by rising to the challenge and putting others above our own interests. 

O – Open Mind. Many of us are too set in our ways. Our cultures and experiences dictate our attitude towards changes around us. And unknowingly this restricts us from being inclusive, from being able to welcome new ideas, to work with people with different personalities and to view solutions from a separate pair of lens. We could easily mute the conversation and get on with our own lives; but if we did so, we would not have done enough to enable others to put the best of themselves forward. 

U – Uniqueness. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery but virtual spaces don’t need more of that breed. Let us celebrate our individuality in what we can offer. Be proud of what we can give. Others might have millions. Some might have their political networks. We may have only ourselves; but ours might be that voice, that passion, that perseverance in cyberspace that grounds and brings people into the fold. 

In whatever modest way we can, give until it hurts. For hurt doesn’t mean pain; it means us pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. Ultimately, it is about us coming out of every challenge stronger and better as we share the best version of ourselves with others. 

So what comes to mind when you hear the word virtuality? 

May giving now be among the top on your list. 

And don’t worry about getting hurt. Take it from Miley Cyrus’ “climb”: 

The struggles I’m facing
The chances I’m taking
Sometimes might knock me down, but

No, I’m not breaking

And I…. I gotta go now. ###

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