I wrote last week about loneliness, building new communities and prayer; this confession of the pain of leaving home and friends has been revelatory for me. I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the scariest aspects of this season of life is the abundance of shallow conversations.
I believe strongly in the power and centrality of both discussion and conversation. Sustained discussion of texts, whether the written word or other art, is, I think, the primary means by which we learn; it is the way that I examine and know creation. It is something that is only done well within a community that loves, respects and understands each other.
Although less formal, conversation, too, is vital. In conversation with fellow saints and friends, we examine the contours of our lives. We rejoice over the work of the Holy Spirit; we sorrow over the effects of sin; we learn to know our neighbors.
So, because I hold discussion and conversation so dearly, the “meet & greet” is my worst enemy. The coffee hour after church and the conversation in the staff lounge over lunch kills me. Endless conversations about “what I do,” “how is work going,” “where I’m from,” and “what was on TV last night” are tedious for most people, but with years of deep questions and communal examining echoing within me, I am beyond frustrated. I long for the discussion of beautiful texts and piercing questions, discussions that are only possible with those who know and love me deeply.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not above these shallow conversations; one doesn’t go straight from exchanging names to questioning the meaning of the universe. Familiarity, trust, relationship: these all have to be built up before discussion and conversation can flourish. And it is the mistake of the immature conversant to think that all conversations must be Socratic or seriously theological to be worth our time. Responding to “How is your week going?” with “What is the nature of virtue?” is unhelpful, to say the least.
But, often I am clueless about how to go from the coffee hour to a book group, or from sharing notes about X-Factor to examining the political issues of our nations together. What if the good conversations never happen?
But of course, they don’t just happen. They require work, work of which I am sometimes terrified. So I offer this fear in prayer. I consider the ways that God built community into my life in the past. I reflect on the conversations of Christ in the Gospels and of his disciples throughout Acts. I pray for my budding conversations and discussions.
I pray for sight; I want to see well the people before me. It’s tempting, especially when insecure, to see conversation as a way to display my best qualities. We are accustomed to angling conversation toward the topics upon which we can pontificate. But this would be a waste of words when a human created in the image of God sits across from me. In the midst of a conversation, I pray that I might be focused on the person with whom I’m speaking, not on my own insecurities and needs. Instead of thinking about what I’m going to say next, I try to intently listen, to hear the emotions and desires being expressed.
I pray for wisdom; I want to know how to ask the right questions. It is hard to question well, especially when you don’t know someone. As an educator, I have found that the follow-up question is the hardest one to ask. It’s easy to ask what someone does for a living, but it’s more difficult to ask why she choose that, or what she loves about it, or to know the right time to push back with a simple “why?” But, these are the questions that gracefully move conversation toward substantial things. I need the discerning movement of the Spirit.
I pray for courage; I want to be able to give of myself in all conversations, whether or not there is any return. It is scary to speak truthfully, and sometimes asking real questions makes conversations fizzle out and die. Partially this is simple social awkwardness, but it reveals a resistance to being known. It takes persistence to build the trust that grounds good conversation.
I pray for grace; I want to love the people in front of me as Christ loves them. No matter what they say or how they say it, I want to listen with the care that Christ has for them. I want to respond with the compassion that Christ does.
Prayer first, and reflection, but then I have to just go outside my (semi-) cozy living room and talk to real, live people, or better, invite them in to it. Conversation is, after all, a neighborly act. There is both the risk of offering and the invitation into relationship. This is how friendship is formed and community is built. It’s not rocket science; it’s just plain, everyday difficult.