Can one conversation fundamentally change who you are and how you are in the world? I think so. And that’s precisely why I think so many of us fear authentic conversation. But hopefully this fear is waning.
One day I had an encounter with a woman who struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine. We had never conversed before, but I knew who she was because we had a mutual friend who was in recovery. On this morning, I had come to pick up this friend for church. When he didn’t answer the door, I decided to ask her how she was doing and formally introduce myself. Admittedly, I did not expect us to have an actual conversation, but the impact of her response to the simple question, “How are you doing today?” compelled me to go deeper with her than was my initial intent.
“I am blessed.” was the essence of her response.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a statement that would have such an impact on me. I can imagine that for some it sounds like just another pleasantry such the ubiquitous “Fine”. But, if you knew Mary’s context, you might have a different idea of what it would take for someone in her circumstances to say she was blessed. I decided to ask her why she felt so blessed. To put it bluntly, she revealed a lot about herself and her circumstances that many of us aren’t capable of hearing. She poured out her pain with a smile on her face and ended that outpouring with, “But I can feel in my heart that I am getting better. I see now that I had been making choices to avoid the thoughts of all of the pain and disappointment in my life. No matter what happens now, I know I’m blessed because I am more aware of what was influencing my choices. Now I can make new choices.”
Now I was blessed. That conversation completely shifted the trajectory of my life. There are many reasons why the conversation influenced me so deeply, but the number one reason was because I didn’t know how to share what I learned from Mary with my existing network of people. I’d seen it many times before. If I took the time to listen to another person’s point of view, the people from my network would argue with me as if I were betraying them by listening to someone outside of what they perceived as the borders of our relationships. I won’t say that this is an exclusive challenge of religious people, but I will admit that we are particularly adept at it.
Mary summed up the essence of what we do with the learnings that come from conversations that challenge our worldview.
No matter what happens now, I know I’m blessed because I am more aware of what was influencing my choices. Now I can make new choices.
Humans talk a lot, but we have very few conversations. Conversations are scary. In many way they are experienced as life-threatening–that is if you see your personal comfort as the prime directive of your life. You will see the inescapable reality of this the moment you sit down with someone with a completely different worldview or point of view on a subject. When we are in survival mode, difference is perceived as a threat. To overcome this, we must accept that we have to take conversational risks in order to truly go to any depth with the people we encounter.
Programs that are emerging such as Living Room Conversations serve to minimize that risk by offering a framework that has mutual respect embedded in its platform. They enhance this offering by partnering with news outlets such as All Sides, which provides news from multiple viewpoints. They are also leveraging technology like Zoom to get more people in dialogue.
Still, the work is on the individual to choose awareness over comfort if they truly want to take their conversations to the next level. Make no mistake, these conversations will change you. I participated in a couple with a gentleman with whom I disagree on several points, but he presented his views with respect and listened with respect and I will continue to be influenced by that interaction. That’s what happens when you allow the other into your world. Despite the fear that doing so takes something away from us, what I have learned is that this work gives me more of me than I would have know otherwise.