I work in Washington, D.C. I have heard it said that Washington is a city full of Senior Class Presidents and first-born children. The exaggerated caricature is that it is a place where power is exalted and people are expendable. Contacts are currency and loyalty has a news-cycle shelf-life. The truth is that Washington, D.C. is just another city full of people – people with hopes, dreams, fears, and a deep desire to be known.
I was recently at a reception in the city with many people I did not know. Several attendees quickly engaged me in conversation and obtained a sense of my resume and Rolodex. Apparently, I was not going to be of much use to them in the future. To varying degrees, each of them began to look past me to see who else was in the room. They quickly ended the conversation and moved on to greener pastures. One was in such a rush he forgot to finish his thought as he walked away in mid-sentence leaving me only in the company of my bacon wrapped scallop hors d’oeuvres.
I wonder how often I have done the same thing: been more interested in what people can do for me than the people themselves. Far too often we enter relationships with a consumer mentality. These transactional interactions reduce “relating” to mere “networking.” We seek out the important and influential and avoid those who appear average or of limited utility — we reject C.S. Lewis’ declaration that “there are no ordinary people.”
This behavior is one thing at a cocktail party, but when it creeps into the rest of our lives, it inhibits authentic connections. “Friends” are reduced to “contacts” when we relate to them based on what they can do for us instead of who they are. Even in marriage – the relationship that ought to be the deepest and most intimate – this consumerism is surprisingly common and destructive. Ironically, if my focus is on how my spouse can fulfill me or help me achieve my life’s goals, I will miss out on marriage’s greatest joys.
Sometimes this pattern spreads into our relationship with God.
A transactional faith is at best mere legalism and more commonly painful manipulation. Hopes, dreams, and relationships cannot flourish in this environment.
What would it look like if we approached others without an agenda? What if we did not look past the person we are with but instead tried to hear them? I think our friendships and acquaintances would be transformed. I am not suggesting a complete retreat from healthy boundaries or networking . . . but instead an advance toward the hard work of acknowledging the people that create the connections of our lives.
The truth is when relationships become transactional they become toxic.
Whether we are with an acquaintance, friend, lover, or God . . . filling our lives with transactional relationships will leave us unsatisfied. Regardless of where we live, I think we find surprising fulfillment when we relax and enjoy the people around us without an agenda.