By Kathy Berken
In catching up with reruns of the Dick Cavett shows from the early 1970s, I watched interviews with actor Charlton Heston and TV star Carroll O’Connor. Both men said something that surprised me. While Heston agreed that being a celebrity meant giving part of himself to his fans, O’Connor seemed less generous. Heston felt he owed the public his time, especially when asked for an autograph. But O’Connor said he was annoyed at autograph seekers. I used to think that Heston was more aloof and that O’Connor was a generous man off set, despite his curmudgeonly character Archie on “All in the Family.”
Heston said his fans deserved his time because they supported his career, so when in public, he embraced his public persona. O’Connor didn’t like autograph seekers, and frankly, they bugged him. That’s because as soon as someone approached him, the first thing they would do is hold out a piece of paper and ask him to sign it. So, O’Connor begrudgingly took the paper, looked down and scribbled his name on it. He hated doing that. However, what he said next surprised me. He explained that what he much preferred was to look the person in the eye, say hello, ask their name, and have a conversation. That piece of paper just gets in the way, he said. It’s a barrier to communication and relationship.
Ah, there’s the kindness I always admired! He said he stopped giving autographs, except to children. Instead, O’Connor would give people his full attention, with no barriers, and make a genuine human connection. I was impressed with Heston’s kindness and willingness to be “owned” by the public, as he described it. I was even more impressed with O’Connor’s immediate desire for human relationship. His desire to connect with fans was as real as it could be, given the circumstances.
How has the world changed since then? If you are in the Boomer Generation as I am, you will remember how focused we were on human connection, on being real, on getting close to the heart of another person. We still want that human connection but what has changed, I think, is how efficient we have become technologically so that we don’t have to be in physical contact with someone to communicate. Texting, video chat, livestreaming, social media and now Zoom have ironically added more boundaries between people than removed them.
There is nothing inherently wrong with all of this efficiency. I often talk with my family via video chat. I’ve attended basketball games, funerals, conferences and social events through the magic of livestream, when I would not have been able to go otherwise. When texting becomes the norm over talking, when Facebook greetings substitute for a visit or a phone call, when an email substitutes for a card in the mail, that’s when isolation increases. Most of our communication is via electronics. Remember hand-written letters? I got one recently and it totally made my day!
In the world of spirituality, what subtle barriers do we place between God and ourselves? Work, social activities, internet, social media, shopping, games, TV? Here, too, there’s nothing inherently bad about any of these things but when we find that they consistently get in the way of our relationship with God, we might want to reflect more deeply on our priorities.
Jesus put no barriers between himself and others. He was present to people, in person and up close. The Magi traveled a long way to see the baby Jesus in person. They didn’t send an email greeting with gifts delivered by Amazon.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)