An Honest Conversation
December 11, 2020
It’s taken quite some time to get to this place in my life, compelled to write. I’m really not sure that I have much to contribute to public discourse, never have, but some hidden force beyond the value of my writing drives me forward. As we all do, I go about the course of my day, listening and engaging (to some extent at least) with the words and images that cross my path -- TV news, emails that clog my inbox, multiplicities of social media platforms, newspaper clips that Nancy sometimes shares over morning coffee, and yes, the phone, especially on my new iPhone – media omnipresent, embedded within the very landscapes of my life. Images and words keep up the constancy of their assault. No clear escape route appears. Yet, buried in this ocean of never-ending information, inside the grip of the multiplicity of its tentacles, attacked from all directions, I generally find myself mute, barely able to speak. I feel overwhelming weight bearing down upon my being, heavy enough it can become an effort to breathe, stopping me cold when I even try to formulate a thought.
Inside, I have so many questions. I want to ask why people talk so much and say so little? I want to ask why people lie, why so many feel the “need” to pretend? I want to ask why people often treat their closest family members worse than complete strangers, why people treat one another differently at all? I want to know what people believe in, what guides inner and outer lives, whether and, if so, what people believe about God? I want to ask people what it takes to be happy? I want to know why people exist, what purpose human life serves, if any, why people talk at all? I want to ask how people “see” themselves, what they perceive as their own identities, whether people actually like themselves? I want to ask what, exactly, gives people the most satisfaction in their lives? I want to ask what “happiness” means, and how much being happy actually matters? I want to learn what people want to know, how people come to know, whether or not knowledge can become certain, what people cannot and perhaps never should know. Within the turns and twists of a genuinely honest conversation, one question naturally leads to another, then another, leading to…. My questions do not end.
Conversations on these subjects, however, never seem to happen. I do not usually bring up these subjects in conversation, even to those with whom my heart is closest. And others seldom bring up subjects like these with me. When I hear others talk, mostly I hear people talking about what they did, are now doing, or what at some point they might do. They might share a detail or two from the plot of their past, stories retread again and again, sometimes entertaining the same audience more than once. People I observe might share a few specifics about an experience of right now, a present conflict with a parent or in-law, something that just happened at work, with friends, or their children. Not infrequently I hear people vent anxieties about events purely anticipated, “what ifs” I call them, about what has not yet and, in fact, may never take place -- “events” such as the possibility of disagreement with a spouse or the agenda for an upcoming trip scheduled during the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the talking that I do observe between two people involves the relaying of experience, stories -- from the past, in the present, anticipating the future –- narratives which skirt the outermost surface of our lives.
This is my problem, becoming caught -- again -- within a web of talk limited to what lies merely on the surface. Caught within the plot of another’s life, I cannot help but helplessly watch myself wondering, “Why should I care … about any of this?” I’ve thought and thought, then thought more still, trying to discern something in this incessant stream of words to care about, to engage with, but, mostly, I come up empty. It gets worse. As I grapple to form at least somewhat of a coherent rejoinder to the “to-do” lists that pass for conversation today, I sense my soul penned within four walls, bricks sky high closing in on my heart, walls that snuff out the light of spirit. I observe myself within a fog so thick that I continue to hear words being spoken -- worries, for example, of whether “x” should go to law school at John Marshall or DePaul University (a dilemma, for sure!) -- but I’m already far far away, in another place and time, entirely, doing my best to escape from the sensation of drowning from my own thirst for the reverence of true communion in a world marked by spiritual emptiness, the void of mere connection.
What is it, I wonder, that leads to this sinking feeling, the sense of physically drowning under the superficiality of incessant talk? I live again, within my head, what was said that so compelled me to seek escape. Silently, alone, what was said rushes over me a second time, then a third, in an effort to know exactly what, in our culture, works to slowly and gradually extinguish the light of the soul.
For me, this question is more easily examined from a distance. When speaking with a close friend or immediate family member, for example, it can be difficult to remove myself enough from the situation at hand to establish the distance I need in order to understand. To create this essential distance, a space that exists above and sufficiently removed from the talk being observed, I might go to a coffee shop or just sit along a main street -- parks work well for me -- listening to the nature and dynamics of twenty-first century speech, observing non-verbal gestures which accompany what is spoken, taking note of particular behaviors as if the human being constitutes nothing more than an object placed under the lens of a microscope or an animal in captivity. In fact, that is precisely what I once did, decades ago, as a high school student with a passion for photography. There, at Lincoln Park Zoo, camera in hand, with the sincerest intentions of photographing the animals, only semi-consciously I would observe myself being drawn toward photographing the people there. In the end, it seems, the subtle and nuanced mysteries of what makes a being human -- rational and free -- attracted my attention far more than zoo animals who, without free will, remain instinctively confined inside nature’s quest for survival and reproduction. I believe that it was here, at the zoo, hidden behind the lens of a camera, where I first learned how to see reality from a distance removed that transcends who is talking, what is said, and the interaction itself. A few of my observations follow…
Who exactly is this person doing the talking in the twenty-first century version of human interaction? You know … that person, the one who tends to do most of the talking. He or she usually turns out to be, as the prescient Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard recognized almost 200 years ago, the person with precisely the least to say. He typically goes on and on without much of a filter, without the capacity to bear much more than a moment of silence, the one who appears troubled by simply “being” in the presence of another, the person who resists being alone … to confront a vast emptiness inside. What this “talker” speaks of mostly involves some version of “me”: each sentence seems to begin with “I”. Every mention appears to at least impliedly include some reference to “me,” what “I” did, am doing, or plan to do, how “I” feel, what “I” think or believe -- and virtually each such association seems to just “pop” right out of his mouth, immediately and involuntarily, no wait-time involved. More and more talk approaches light speed – barely space for the next breath! There seems to be no time, really, no time -- none at all -- for that necessary pause between words, sentences, or paragraphs (spoken without breathing) which allows for that essential moment of reflection. The more someone talks within this paradigm of self, the less likely it appears that he or she will actually have developed (or will ever develop) any real ability to listen, receptively, to what another might have to contribute. Instead, enclosed within the narrowness of such a paradigm, whatever another says operates only to generate, in the “talker’s” mind, an immediate and felt association which instinctively re-directs the interaction back to “me,” toward associations with similar experiences that “I” can exploit to become the one who is talking again – sharing “my” feelings, snap judgments, and unsolicited opinions on whatever topic may have just come to the surface. I hesitate to qualify such interaction as conversation.
What, exactly, is spoken? I observe that most human interaction today lacks the depth of what I, at least, understand to be genuinely substantive conversation. A conversation of substance requires, as a condition, the possession of knowledge which genuinely qualifies as substantive -- knowledge of actual content regarding the nature of reality and how best to align human life within the highest levels of reality. To reach toward such knowledge and live within what is actually real, thereby becoming a person of substance, the whole of life must become centered upon cycles of action, reflection, and consultation founded in truths gleaned from insights revealed through the disciplined study of religion and spirituality, philosophy and the sciences, history, literature, and the arts. We feed our physical bodies three times or more each and every day. To what extent are we similarly devoted to the nourishment of our inward selves, our own spirits? Only one of true substance has the capacity to engage in conversations of true substance, to converse in ways that have potential to elevate our understanding and more effectively align our thoughts and actions within the highest truths. This substantive ideal, needless to say, remains distant, far from what I observe in the everyday of my life: ceaseless talk of experiences which form the plot-lines of individual lives, experiences reduced to what is almost entirely personal -- “my” life -- plus, all this takes place within the context of a constant whirlwind of words that rarely if ever allow for what is spoken to be processed. It should come as little surprise that, under these circumstances, the discovery of what might actually qualify as a substantive conversation has become, for me, a rare and precious delight.
And what about the nature and dynamic of that interaction which passes for conversation in society today? I observe, within our digital world of online communication, that the shallowness of mere connection is gradually coming to replace the depths of genuine relation. True relationship emerges naturally from two hearts who, unified in dialogue, share what is innermost, immensurable, what matters most in the lives of both the individual and the whole of society, within a place so safe that it’s permissible -- even encouraged -- to be totally honest, open, and vulnerable. Instead of observing dialogue which reveals real vulnerability to wholehearted inward transformation, what I typically observe, sad to say, comes closer to “commercial speech.” Each party to the interaction employs the mind to rationally calculate what she posts, emails, or might say in the conscious pursuit of her self-interest. The goal of such interaction is to be as ‘productive’ as possible in order to maximize one’s economic and ‘social capital,’ status that can lead to the accumulation of influence and wealth. It is as if, in today’s world, the overwhelming domination of digital communication systems encourages us to regard ourselves and each other as nothing more than commodities, things purely material, not much different than merchandise on the shelves at Target -- with the primary goal of life being, now, to always become worth more and more. Successful “commercial interaction” exists within a paradigm of mind that is and must remain separate and distinct, independent from the realm of heart that has and will always define true human relationship. I do not wonder why mental illness in our times has reached yet another all-time high as levels of stress, anxiety, isolation, loneliness, depression, and suicide relentlessly increase: our modern norm of “conversation” is based upon appearance, fabrications meant primarily to further material self-interest, not the fundamental truth of who we actually are, deep within our hearts and souls, as human beings.
One truth is this, that throughout the world today, because what passes for conversation has been so reduced, more and more people have lost their way, confused, unsure of their own selves. The late Irish priest, philosopher, and poet, John O’Donohue, had this to say in 2008 about the state of personal identity in the United States:
“I was always amazed, when I came to the land of the free and the home of the exceptionally brave, that if I put too much sincerity into the question, ‘How are you?’ I could have unleashed a biography in seconds, you know? And that you’d get information that you’d never dream of. And it often seems to me here that a person believes that if they tell their story, that that’s who they are. And sometimes these stories are constructed of the most banal, secondhand psychological and spiritual cliche, and you look at the beautiful, interesting face telling a story that you know doesn’t hold a candle to the life that’s secretly in there (emphasis mine).
What I think happens here a bit is that there’s a reduction of identity to biography. And they’re not the same thing. I think biography unfolds identity and makes it visible and puts the mirror of it out there, but I think identity is a more complex thing. And what I love in this regard is my old friend Meister Eckhart, the 14th century [German] mystic…. [O]ne day I read in him, and he said, ‘There is a place in the soul that neither time nor space nor no created thing can touch.’ And I really thought that was amazing. And if you cash it out, what it means is that your identity is not equivalent to your biography and that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there is still sureness in you, where there’s seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.”
We are more than the plot of our lives. We are more than how we present ourselves, our appearance. We are much more, so much more, than our social position. We also are more than any measure of material wealth. Who we truly are, within, at the inward level of soul, is infinitely higher, wider, and deeper than my capacity for rational understanding. And it will be only after the recognition and embrace of these dual realities – the infinity of our attributes and our human limitations, both -- that the spiritual qualities of gratitude and humility (among others) can begin to emerge from deep within our hearts, and allow for true relationships to flower through the act of honest conversation.
It would be considerable in today’s world to wholly open one’s heart and sincerely become vulnerable to the transformative power of a genuinely honest conversation, but it would be quite another to engage in conversations truly of substance. Here, O’Donohue can help:
“Who are you reading? And where are you stretching your own boundaries? Are you repetitive in that? One of the first books I read as a child … was a book by Willie Sutton, the bank robber, who was doing 30 years for robbing banks. In the book somebody asked, ‘Willie, why do you rob banks?’ Willie said, “because that’s where the money is.’ And why do we read books? Because that’s where the wisdom is (emphasis mine).
Like my professors in college always used to say, if you were doing an essay or doing a thesis, the first thing you have to do is read the primary sources and trust your own encounter with them (emphasis mine again) before you go to the secondary literature…. [Y]ou could be surprised what an exciting adventure and homecoming it could become.”
At conception each of us received an inestimable gift, the capacity to know what is true, meaning, the ability to discern between reality and illusion … so, now, with this gift, it becomes my responsibility to independently investigate the truth for myself. Well, do you read? Please, here, stop a moment and be honest: what exactly do you read? Do you make an effort to stretch yourself, digging for sources, primary sources especially, that challenge your present abilities for understanding? Do you search out diverse points of view, including vantage points that might provoke or even infuriate you? Do you constantly seek to extend your intellectual and spiritual horizons toward the edge of what is possible to know? Here, I am reminded of this truth: It will remain difficult to contribute anything of genuine value in conversation, as O’Donohue acknowledged, until I first devote the time and attention required to actually know content that qualifies as substantive, relevant, and is worth sharing.
By now this much should be clear, that I have gleaned quite a bit of substantive knowledge about what it means to engage in honest conversation from my study of John O’Donohue’s writings. It should also be clear, I hope, that, in a twenty-first century world that continues to suffer from a crisis of relationship, what O’Donohue has learned about conversation is definitely worth sharing. We seem to have lost clear touch with so much of our true selves, who we really are, that what we most need now is guidance … if nothing more, then at least to help us recover a sense of what genuine conversation might actually look like. And, this guidance needs to begin with a description, by O’Donohue, of “great” conversation:
“... when is the last time that you had a great conversation, a conversation which wasn’t just two intersecting monologues, which is what passes for conversation a lot in this culture? But when had you last had a great conversation in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew, that you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost and a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you onto a different plane, and then, fourthly, a conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks afterward? I’ve had some of them recently, and it’s absolutely amazing. They’re like, as we would say at home, they are food and drink for the soul.”
Let’s break this down, that we can begin to recognize precisely what it means to actively participate in a model of conversation: (1) I overhear myself saying things that I never knew I knew; (2) I hear myself receiving from another words that absolutely find places within me which I thought I had lost; (3) I sense the conversation as an event that brings the two of us, both, together, onto a different and higher plane; and (4) this conversation continues, as O’Donohue puts it, to “sing” within me for weeks afterward. A “great” conversation – if we can approach such an ideal -- elevates the hearts and minds of two souls who, through active engagement within dialogue, become united as one.
What, then, must we seek to cultivate before the quality of our conversations can begin to approach this ideal? We’ve already touched on one requirement, the need to cultivate intellectual and spiritual curiosity which inspires our receptivity to content knowledge – substance relevant to the biggest questions, the ones that matter most ... questions like “who am I?”, “where do I fit into the world?”, and “how might I live with a sense of meaning and purpose?” Still, by itself, content knowledge will not be enough to transform the intersecting monologues of our modern times into genuinely honest conversation. Such a transformation -- from monologue to dialogue, from connection to communion -- can take place only after we have sufficiently cultivated within ourselves of a sense of the sacred, what O’Donohue described as “reverence of approach”:
“A gracious approach is the key that unlocks the treasure of encounter. The way we are present to each other is frequently superficial. We become more interested in ‘connection’ rather than communion. In many areas of our lives the rich potential of friendship and love remains out of our reach because we push towards ‘connection.’ When we deaden our own depths, we cannot strike a resonance in those we meet or in the work we do. A reverence of approach awakens depth and enables us to be truly present where we are. When we approach with reverence great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface….”
Reverence for what is sacred in another being involves the recognition of what is beautiful in others, in ourselves, and in creation as a whole. To the extent that I can honor the beauty in another human being as sacred -- his intelligence, compassion, sense of justice, ability to forgive, for example -- it would become natural for me to approach him with reverence. To the extent that I can see the beauty within myself as sacred -- recognizing that, at my core, I am a spiritual being imbued with infinite gifts of reason, love, patience, kindness, mercy, perseverance, and more -- it would become natural to understand myself as noble and worthy of reverence. And to the extent that I can see the beauty of all creation as sacred -- as a grace provided by God to be nourished and sustained -- it would become natural for us, all of us, to approach the worlds of animals, plants, and minerals in a state of reverence.
… which brings me back to the opening lines of this essay: why do I write? Well, actually, I’d rather not. I would rather be engaged in honest face-to-face conversation with a true friend, but, having been born into a world dominated increasingly by systems of digital online communication, an opportunity for real communion in conversation has become something of a privilege. It reminds me of a passage from the twentieth century moral philosopher Charles Taylor, who summarized why perhaps the most renowned essayist of the French Renaissance, Michele Montaigne, decided to write:
“Montaigne sought through laborious self-examination the penetrating grasp of the particular [in his essays], which can arise spontaneously in a deep friendship. Montaigne had lived one such, and he was aware of the link; indeed, he attributed his undertaking … to the loss of his friend, La Boetie, as though it were but a second best: ‘He alone partook of my true image, and carried it off with him. That is why I so curiously decipher myself.’ The self is both made and explored with words; and the best for both are the words spoken in the dialogue of friendship. In default of that, the debate with the solitary self comes limping far behind.”
Honest conversation within the presence of a genuine friend wins the prize. Writing? In the words of Taylor, who echoes Montaigne, writing always limps feebly across the finish line -- “far behind,” “second best.” Montaigne and Taylor help me to better understand why the subject of this essay -- conversation -- has now become relevant, worthy of our time and consideration: the quality of our lives depends in large part, if not primarily, upon how well we relate with each other. The decline of conversation in the world today reflects a similar decline in the quality of our relationships with each other, and, sadly, a decline also in the quality of human life itself. With this sorrow in my heart, I hope and pray that we, all of us, individually and collectively, may begin to rethink what it means to live well, to recognize that living well largely depends on the extent to which we attend to the quality of our relations, and to cultivate within ourselves the spiritual qualities we need to transform our conversations from the superficiality of mere connection to the elevated communion of substance that we now know is possible. May we all come to see ourselves, each other, and the world as sacred, so sacred, in fact, that we will come to approach all that exists within the natural world -- other human beings, ourselves, and creation itself -- from the humble and thankful stance of reverence.