Spirit-filled encounters

In modern society, there are two kinds of interactions that can be deeply annoying — even degrading. The first is when we are forced to interact with automated systems. This often happens over the phone, when we need to have a question directed to the appropriate agent, so we need to explain ourselves and the nature of our request. It may be a bank, a store, a school, or a utility, and although the procedure may be more efficient on the part of the company in question, it can be frustrating to have our time wrapped up in explaining ourselves by means of prompts and simplistic categories. 

The second annoying interaction is almost the opposite. It occurs when an utter stranger begins by using your name (usually your first name), your private information, and your particular need in an intimate manner. It may be an effort to show that automated information can be accessed efficiently, but it’s off-putting, even creepy in a way. One skips the introductions, the niceties, and the usual time needed to build trust and jumps right into a personal encounter — although there is no real relationship. 

Perhaps the degree of discomfort is a factor of age or personality, but I think that if we are entirely comfortable either talking to computers or sharing intimacy with strangers, we have lost a key element of being human. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone is entirely comfortable in either scenario, although we’ve become resigned to the fact that both situations will arise in a technological age. Efficiency has its benefits, and corporations are doing what they can to make communication work for the customer.

So rather than remaining frustrated or angry about the way that massive bureaucracies attempt to deal with countless customers with myriad needs (who expect around-the-clock service at their fingertips) perhaps we could make it a point to make actual encounters we do have as human as possible. It begins at home with eye contact, and carries into the workplace, the classroom, and every social interaction during the day. The most important encounters are with family members, but friends and coworkers deserve our loving care as well. This cannot interfere with professionalism when we’re on the clock, but outside of that we can make the most of even the smallest interactions. 

To be sure, not everyone wants every encounter to be charged with meaning, and we have to gauge each situation, but I am convinced that more often than not, overworked, underappreciated people thirst for smiles and tokens of gratitude, and most people are gratified when we remember their loved ones and prayer concerns. In an automated world where customers are numbers and a threat of litigation hangs over the all-encompassing market, simple actions like buying or selling, treating or being healed, serving and being served risk losing their human character for the sake of economic forces. 

It’s important to know that the word “economy” comes from the Greek oikonomia, meaning “household management.” Since the 17th century, the word has been applied to larger settings, but we should never forget that the home is foundational to the kind of culture that we create. Thus, if the home prioritizes respect, honesty, genuine concern, and forbearance among its members, then that’s what they will bring to their public exchanges. They will know when to exercise patience with the machines and a healthy reserve when faced with slick intimacies. This doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of Christian charity, but it lays the foundation, so that when we remember the legitimate needs of human nature, grace can follow, and for that we follow a different prompt altogether. 

Anchor columnist Mrs. Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at feminine-genius.typepad.com.

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