For me, one of the overwhelming changes in so many aspects of life during the pandemic has been the use of and interaction with, the internet, social media platforms and the maintenance of ‘virtual’ relationships amongst our members via online meetings.
Within Freemasonry, this has been about far more than simply keeping in touch.
Brethren and Companions who are comfortable with social media and the use of I.T. to communicate have willingly embraced the possibilities it provides. But moreover, many have stepped outside of their comfort zone and technical knowledge to accept help from others.
What has been heart-warming (and to be honest, wholly unsurprising) is the amount of support and coaching which members have provided to each other to ensure contact is maintained. There have been so many, very personal instances of members not accepting a friend saying that “…they don’t do computers” or similar and opting out. Their friends have not been prepared to accept no contact as the default. They have ensured that, as far as is possible, no one is left out. That all have the opportunity to remain a part of their extended family; for some, their only family.
In a 21st century setting, it provided resonance to that phrase “Happy to meet, sorry to part, happy to meet again” with many looking forward to their regular online contact. And how often has that phrase been repeated by us and now, we are given a real appreciation of it?
Virtual meetings such as Zoom (NB: other platforms are available!) have made this the norm. At first, I laughed at how we used it. Never in my life have I ever left a physical meeting and felt the need to wave at everyone present!
But then, I began to appreciate how touching, sincere, genuine and heartfelt that parting act was; an affirmation that we looked forward to seeing each other soon. And how important that human touch, a simple wave as a gesture of commitment, of friendship, can be.
There was the occasion (Chatham House Rules apply) during a recent Lodge gathering online where the oldest and least technically proficient attendee, somehow part-way through, defaulted to becoming the meeting host. Panic ensued. During his attempts to abrogate responsibility by frantically clicking on every option available, he concluded the meeting for all by clicking on ‘End’!
And how often have meetings online commenced with cries of “Is there anybody there?” “Hello, am I in yet?” “I can’t see you, can you see me?”, “Am I on?” and my favourite thus far “I’m sorry if my picture keeps freezing. I’m not very stable.”
I’ve witnessed random family members enter meetings with questions about cups of tea, what was for dinner and one sternly commenting that “… your dinner is ready!” I’ve observed participants jumped on by their pets, their grandchildren and both. I’ve developed motion sickness due to the number of iPads and mobile phones constantly being moved, rotated, jiggled and dropped! One participant was disconnected when his cat sat on his laptop. Another almost fell off his chair when his Labrador decided he wanted to share his meeting and the chair. And those precious moments when friends mistakenly believed they had ended their attendance but continued to provide us with a ringside view from their own webcam of them continuing their lives and private domestic discussions with the accompanying commentary from several of us, earnestly shouting at our devices “we can still see you!” It could provide a whole fresh angle and opportunity for a new series of Big Brother!
If only Zoom had been around years ago, an episode of ‘Dads Army’ could easily have been based on our experiences and antics.
But what will we learn from all of this?
I think I have been reminded of the importance of relationships being fostered and maintained outside of our meetings just as much as within them. That our meetings are part of what we are, but not all of what we are. I’ve realised how much the members of my Lodges and Chapters mean to me, how much my membership clearly means to them. I’ve come to appreciate – deeply – that I miss them and in turn, I am missed. I’ve recognised that I have so many groups through several memberships upon whom I can depend, without qualification or reservation. That everyone I know within every Order still cares about my loved ones and their welfare. And I have constantly been reminded how much laughter, commonality, joy we still share and how much anticipation there is of it being renewed in person.
I’ve been reminded that during our history, the spirit of Freemasonry has weathered greater things than a pandemic – and survived. And the reason has simply been a shared set of values, of beliefs, understanding, of wishing to make our society a better place for all and a whole list of other things personal to each and every one of us. This has been abundantly clear from the continued generosity of Freemasons and despite their own situation and real fears, that they are still anxious to help others less fortunate than themselves through fundraising and practical help.
Please keep on with your meetings, your phone calls and emails. I am yet to hear anybody say that they are not welcomed. And if just one person who is isolated is made to feel that they are not alone, it makes our efforts so vitally worthwhile.
Let’s hope that when this is over, we re-engage with our membership of Freemasonry with a new vigour, a new commitment. After all, if we can achieve all that we have whilst in isolation, just thing of what we can do when we meet together again.
And who knows? Part of the way in which our online gatherings have evolved with Zoom and similar may even change our procedures.
Picture the scene. The Lodge has just closed and the DC announces “The Brethren will stand whilst the Worshipful Master and his Officers retire, whilst at the same time, singing the Closing Ode and waving at them.”
Keep well, keep safe, keep in touch and keep each other smiling.