As COVID lockdown restrictions begin to ease, I have participated in the past week in two in-person social events.

Neither of these gatherings was large and both were held outside and, for the most part, we did our best to keep some physical distance. But these were gatherings of real people in the flesh greeting one another, having a drink, and in one case sharing a meal together. It has been almost four months since I saw anyone more than immediate family in anything like such an intimate setting. To date all my social contacts since physical distancing began in earnest have been either on zoom, Facetime, telephone, or by email.

Many of the virtual gatherings in which I have shared over the past 120 days have been meaningful and worthwhile. Some of them have included moments that were touching, honest and profoundly open. At the very least they have maintained a sense of connection and sustained tenuous strands of community.

But, in the two in-person gatherings I shared in last week, I was struck by the powerful difference between virtual gathering and physical presence. There is something about the give- and-take of actually being together that cannot be achieved on a screen or through mere audio. There are so many more ways we communicate than simply with the words we say.

At the second of these gatherings, I had a conversation with a parent from the church in which I work. He was commenting on how amazingly well the young people of our community are doing staying connected and finding remarkable ways to continue nurturing the links they have forged through church and youth group. We wondered together whether this switch to on-line life has been easier for a younger generation who have mostly spent their entire lives accustomed to connecting on screens.

As I think about that conversation and our lovely youth who are finding so many ways to maintain their bonds through technology, I wonder if I should feel anxious for them. Are they going to grow into adulthood thinking that linking online is in fact the same as, or as good as, or perhaps even better than, being in the physical presence of another human being? Might they be losing some of the skills that are necessary to navigating in-person exchanges?

No matter how adept we may be at operating electronically, there is an artificiality to exchanges that take place on-line that cannot copy the authenticity that is at least potentially available when we are physically present. There are subtle nuances of body posture, facial expression, voice modulation and timing that are not available in any online forum.

It is troubling to think that a generation of young people may be growing up without the skills to “read” these subtle clues to human communication.

There is a warmth and vulnerability to physical presence that is not as likely to be experienced through a mechanical device. There is a spontaneity to in-person conversation that has an energy and dynamism that is missing when only one person at a time can speak and there is no possibility for overlap.

But, it would be churlish to dismiss zoom, Facetime, phone contact, or even email in this COVID time. Without a doubt, the human community would have been impoverished during these enforced days of physical distance without the gift of connecting online.

I hope we will continue to use these platforms to keep human connections alive, but will not lose the skills of intimacy that uniquely equip us to connect through physical presence. I believe that this time of separation may make it possible for us one day to return to renewed, in-person contact with greater appreciation for the wonder of human communion.