love is not enough
The implicit goal of such an event is for singles to mingle, pair up, ring up, procreate, and tithe their money back to the church carpet fund, sure, but it can't hurt to be friendly. So what do you do? You say "hello," of course.
Sure, Cupid's a capricious god who might or might not one day honor this connection with an arrow, but this is not why you say "hello" in return. You say "hello" because it's the polite thing to do, and only a jerk would ignore someone who has gone out of her way to be friendly.
If you determine by her manner that her intentions are a bit more than friendly, you might politely extricate yourself from the conversation - or attempt to avoid unwanted advances in the first place by hovering over the hors d'oeuvres table all night, stuffing your face - but you'd still at least respond, right? That's a no-brainer.
It gets weirdly complicated, though, when you remove the intra-corporeal dynamic by digitizing it all onto a dating website. In the online format of this crazy game, nobody can claim to just be there for the free food, so any advance of any kind is precisely, explicitly one person saying to another, "Hey, I find your carefully-crafted digital self intriguing and would be interested in exploring the possibility of perhaps one day meeting and dating you in real life. Will you look at my carefully-crafted digital self and let me know if you think we could move together beyond the confines of this ridiculous website?"
Responding, then, to a note or a "nudge" (or whatever your site-of-choice happens to use) clearly conveys that you are interested in this other person in a way that would not be as easily discernable from your response to the woman at the wine-and-cheese thing. The wine-and-cheese woman may have hoped for a romantic connection of some sort, but unless she's in a deluded-psycho-creeper phase (we all have them - admit it), she couldn't assume from the fact that you said "hello" that a possibly-romantic connection had been made.
Online, you are suddenly faced with a bit of an ethical dilemma. Do you do the otherwise normal thing and respond to a woman in a way that more clearly signals openness to dating, or do you do what would normally be extremely rude, ignore her, and save everybody the hassle of sorting out your mixed message? At first blush, the kindest thing might seem to be to respond, and then to politely express your lack of interest - but how would that serve anyone well?
Why say in ten, twenty, or thirty words what can much more clearly be said in none?
This, at least, is the rationalization you might use. Still, you'd likely have a nagging feeling that a no-answer answer is somehow wrong... that it represents a somewhat overly-calculating response to what is, in fact, an actual human being - a wonderfully complex and lovely person who, like you, has feelings and desires, hopes and fears.
For a man, this question is probably fairly easy to resolve - or at least ignore - since the prevalent gender roles played out in our culture mean that most women will wait around for you to speak first. But many women on dating websites get inundated daily with a flood of attention, as the dissociative properties of the internet remove a good deal of the fear a man might otherwise feel in approaching a woman whom he finds attractive.*
Thinking about all of this takes me back to the Ethics 211 class I signed up for my third year of University; where for the first time, I was forcefully exposed to the concept of situational ethics, the idea that certain "right" actions can be cast aside if love demands it. Our teacher carried this even further, and argued that one cannot always even know what the "right" choice is.
Without certainty, it seemed to me, life would quickly become a series of Kafkaesque nightmares, in which you wandered from one directionless human encounter to another, never knowing if you were making the world a better or worse place with your passage; and at the time, I couldn't handle that much uncertainty. I shut down the part of me that was teetering on the edge of mystery, picked a side in each dilemma, and basically tuned out the rest of the class.
Now, though, having had a great deal of my pride and fear battered out of me by the vagaries of this here hard-knock life, I have come to appreciate the mystery. It is hard, always, to rest in it, but I am beginning to enjoy the fact that I cannot ever really Know, for absolute certain, whether I am doing the most loving thing, or just deluding myself into thinking that I am in order to be able to follow the course my baser nature most desires. There is a joy in this, but it is a joy that can only be found in something more, even, than the oft-amorphous concept of "Love." This joyous something is called Grace.
Grace is not, of course, in opposition to Love. But it is, perhaps, its most glorious, nonsensical expression. I cannot capital "K" Know whether it is more loving to respond to a woman's internetual entreaties for connection, or to ignore them. What I can do is relax, rest, and sink into the mystery and joy of it, knowing that whatever I do in fact choose to do, Love is big enough to wrap my bad decisions up in the bounteous folds of its own all-Knowing, all-forgiving wonder. And that, my disassociated internetual brethren, is what Grace is all about.
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*It removes a lot of his shame and/or decency as well, I'm told... but that's another story, entirely.