There is a very particular way to act in the men’s room. The rules are simple and straightforward, though people seldom talk about them. First of all, eyes straight ahead. Don’t look left and don’t look right. That spot on the wall right in front of you is the most interesting thing imaginable. The person next to you does not exist. If someone toots, try not to laugh. If a laugh slips out, conceal it as a cough. Remember, pretend the person is not there. In fact, if there are more than two urinals, skip one so that you can be farther away from the person in order to reassure them that you really aren’t going to engage them in conversation or sneak a peak. If there are only two urinals, better to go in the stall than to pull up next to someone. Most importantly: don’t talk to anyone! Remember, pretend the others are not there. The rules are simple, and they make a certain amount of sense in the men’s room. I see a problem, however, when people use men’s room etiquette as a way of being in the world.
You’ve all seen it. You walk down the street and everyone else is staring straight ahead, or maybe they are looking at some interesting spot on the ground. They are determinedly looking anywhere except at you. In fact, if you are approaching someone on the sidewalk, they might even cross the street to avoid interacting with you. If you try to say something, they either completely ignore you or look at you like you’ve violated some sacred contract. Even in conversation with people I know, I find many of them avoiding my gaze, either looking down at their hands or playing with their blasted smart phone. It is as if they are allergic to eye contact. I understand that some people are socially awkward and that most people are introverts, but being introverted does not mean avoiding others or pretending they don’t exist. That’s how we deal with people in the men’s room, not in everyday life.
I fear that people are becoming less comfortable in the physical presence of others. They do not know how to interact, so they revert to men’s room etiquette: eyes straight ahead, leave plenty of room, and don’t talk. The reality is that many people spend more time interacting with a computer screen than with others. People are becoming more concerned with the characters on their favorite TV show than with people in real life. Even relationships that we have are increasingly impersonal. People in the same room communicate via text message rather than face-to-face. People have over 1,000 friends on a social media site, but they have few, if any, close relationships. Our fast-paced, technological world seldom allows for intentional, face-to-face interaction.
There is a profound sense of loneliness associated with this loss of face-to-face communication. Our human minds are programmed to respond to the human face. Infants form attachment patterns with the face of the primary caregiver in the earliest weeks of life. Much of our psychological and neurological development happens in relationship to the faces of others. James Loder insists that this human longing for the face has theological implications that turn the individual to the Face of the One who does not go away. Emmanuel Levinas writes about the ethical implications of this human need for the face, saying that the encounter with the “face of the other” gives definition to our own personhood and makes ethical claims upon us. If people are biologically programmed to respond to faces in ways that give rise to emotional, spiritual, and social well-being, there are profound consequences to the loss of face-to-face interaction. In many ways, losing the ability to interact with the face of the other is to risk our humanity.
As people concerned with the well-being of others, Christians need to seek out places of intentional encounter. This is especially true for those of us who minister with young people. More than any other generation, the young generation is socialized to avoid face-to-face interaction, and this is creating a warped sense of self, a distorted view of what constitutes reality (think of RPG avatars and “reality” TV), and a profound loneliness in the midst of the most connected world in history. One of the reasons I believe so strongly in the Christian camping experience is that it is a place of genuine human encounter. People who would normally not choose to be near one another are placed in communities that are completely unmediated by technology. If they do not get along, they cannot simply “unfriend” the other person or stare at the wall in front of them. They are forced to make sense of their otherness. This may not lead to a lifelong relationship, but it will lead to ethical encounter and face-to-face interaction that can shape their understanding of self in relationship to the world. Rather than searching for their identity as solitary individuals, the caring Christian community looks them in the eyes and proclaims who they are: Child of God.
Whether we take them to camp or find other “camp-like” places of intentional face-to-face encounter, we as ministers with young people need to find ways to get them away from men’s room etiquette. Stop looking at the ground! Stop looking at that spot on the wall! Stop looking at your smart phone! There is another person right in front of you. That person has deep hurts and profound longings. That person needs you to be the presence of Christ in their life right now. How can camp change the world? As an intentional place of face-to-face encounter.