One Significant Conversation
Recently I suggested that people in my circle of acquaintance adopt a practice I try to live by; namely, to have one significant conversation each day with someone known, and one significant conversation with someone new. The latter proves, of course, much harder to do than the former. But the former is not easy either: many people have little or no significant conversation during a day and, furthermore, have gotten used to this as if it were acceptable. Years ago I innocently asked my middle son, who was then living in Boston, if he had one significant conversation each day. He thought I was joking and said it was impossible.
It would be a better world if we all had one significant conversation a day.
What do I mean by a “significant conversation”? First, it means no talking about sports, the weather, or your most recent illness unless it is a spiritual threat to you. Second, it means entering the life of another person and listening as only you can listen to hear the depth in the other. You are uniquely capable of listening to the people in your circle as no one else can. People are willing to pay money for ears. Third, it means interrupting your own schedule to be available for others. Probably one of these three reasons currently stops you from significant conversation.
When I lived in Chicago, I was teaching among people from many different countries. An African student asked me why Americans say, “How are you?” if they are unwilling to stop and hear the answer. In Africa, he said, people stop and willingly interrupt their own agenda to find out how others really are. The noble art of conversation is not yet dead on African soil.
What does this do for other people? It honors them; it makes them feel as if they are worthwhile, loved, and worthy of your attention. It gives them the option to disclose matters of importance to you, stuff that comes from their depths instead of simply passing off the usual top-of-the-head comments we exchange.
What does this do for us? It makes us keener, sharper, and more attentive to the real person who is before us. We become aware, or we can become aware in a setting of trust, of the full reality of the other person. We have no choice but to become compassionate when we really allow ourselves the gift of conversation.
What does this have to do with God? Plenty. We are made in the image and likeness of God, hence to relate to another human being is to relate to God through the veil of flesh. God shows up in masks, and each one of us is a mask. God made man because he loves stories, says Elie Wiesel; each one of us a story to be told. So, to use terms I’m familiar with, each of us can be a “little Christ” to another person, as St John Chrysostom said, and through our listening.
The late theological teacher Nelle Morton, in her book The Journey is Home, offered a reversal of our usual metaphors about God. She suggested that, rather than understanding God as Word, we think for a change of God as Hearing. Imagine that: God the great listener, who hears each one of us into speech. The Psalms, for example, are people’s attempts to speak to God in all their conditions of life, and God hears. So might we become listeners, for the sake of God’s presence in the world, in the lives of those whom we “hear into speech” through conversation.
published 6 November 2009