Connection or Transaction?

I am not a cat person.

Yet I couldn’t help clicking on a cat video yesterday–two cats, each with a hospitality bell next to them, and a plate. Each time they rang the bell, they got a piece of kibble. Completely Pavlovian to the point where the one cat figured out that it didn’t matter which bell he rang. As long as he rang a bell, he got a treat.

This little video reminded me that we live in a transactional society–you give me 3 oranges and I give you 6 bananas, you post a funny picture on Facebook and I “Like” it, I get rid of all of the Candy Crush icons and the bear rises above the line so I win.

This isn’t new, but transactions have grown in number as technology and the Internet are become more integrated into our daily and work lives. Email–of which I am an enormous fan–gets quicker answers than phone calls or letters. A two-minute Facetime session in the morning means no phone call. Make a quick 360 pirouette in a crowd, and we see smartphones everywhere, and people deeply enmeshed in these transactions.

I have friends and colleagues who will wax poetic on both sides of the argument–“smartphones have created greater connectedness” to “smartphones and technology have depersonalized relationships and isolated us.” These two perspectives represent specific answers to the key questions that arise when we make one of these transactions: What is the value of what we have? What do we seek to get in return for that value? And what must we give up in the exchange?

As Jesus has shown us repeatedly through the Gospels this Lent, we are called to engage in personal relationships with others, not mere transactions. That means that empathy is required of us–being able to listen deeply, hear and understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and respond.

Early in his tenure at our parish, our youth minister met with a young mother who wanted to know if her son who was developmentally impaired could receive his First Communion with the second-graders that year. This was not the first parish she had come to. At the other parishes, she was turned away for various reasons, but they boiled down to either the priest didn’t think he was capable of understanding the Sacrament or it would be an inconvenience.

She was shown very little empathy and compassion. The transaction–Sacrament to a child–required too much than they were willing to exchange.

In the end, the decision for our youth minister to say “yes” was actually easy. He recognized as the mother already had that her son was as much in the image of God as anyone else and quite capable of understanding what he was about to do. What she and her son received in return was more than they expected–they became part of a larger community that fostered and sustained them, and continues to do so. On the youth minister’s part, he gave up some extra time and work to fashion a program that met the young man where he was.

How do we move from transaction to connection? The next time you are faced with a need to connect with people, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is valuable about the connection with the other person? Is the person a friend, colleague, or stranger? Are you trying to forge a stronger partnership or tapping them for information?
  • What do we seek to get in return for that value? Is this a long- or short- or no-term relationship?
  • What must we give up in the exchange? How much time will this take? Can you commit to the exchange? How are you going to overcome what makes you uncomfortable in this exchange?