Meaningful Conversations

My friend, Bob Blake, recorded a segment on PBS's "This I Believe".  You can listen to it here.  Bob is a special friend of mine in that he is the one of just a few people (I wrote only, at first, and that seemed too narrow, but that may have been correct) in my off-line life with whom  I can have complex conversations.   My post is entitled "Meaningful Conversations" because I think that meaningful conversations are important.

Bob and I worked together for many years in in volunteer leadership capacities for the Greater Richmond United Way.  In our last year of service together, he was the vice chair on the Allocations and Assessment Committee--the committee that allocated community donations to the United Way member organizations.  After that year, our local UW changed the structure, and I was long gone.

Sometime after my final session with my beloved volunteers,  Bob and I had lunch together.  It turned out to be a very special lunch.  It was a glorious day (I surmise as we we ate outside).

I believe that the lunch was our first lunch...The First Lunch....sounds like a landmark event, and it proved to be such. There we found ourselves on the porch of the restaurant on that lovely day.  Our iced teas were ordered, and in that space between our beverage being served and our order taken, I asked, "So what are you reading?"

I'm quite certain that for non-readers the question puts them on the defensive--though it has taken me about a decade to understand that (I'm working on that).  I regret that I'm neither sensitive nor socially aware enough to recognize that such forward and specific questions yield a bifurcated  answer--an enthusiastic "yes, I'm reading ______" or a mildly embarrassed answer of "no, I'm not reading anything do you think I'm a dolt?"  I never mean the question to end up as an admonishment if the answer is no, and I have learned to soft peddle my question so that it is not so direct.

[Aside:  For so many years, I always had something that I was reading--if only on the tangent (meaning,  it piled up by one of my reading venues).  I have a natural curiosity regarding what others are reading, so I always ask them (unless after bludgeoning with my question I realize after a while that they are not readers).]

At that lunch, on that day, I asked Bob what he was reading (I've since learned (oh who am I kidding, I' haven't) learned my soft-peddling techniques for eliciting the same information).  He was reluctant to to tell me, "Oh, you would not know the author," he offered politely. The human bulldozer does not take such an answer as an answer.  I stepped on the clutched and moved my dozer into gear, "Try me!  I read lots of unusual things, and I might surprise you."

He did not seem convinced but offered up his current reading (I had already scooped him up in the dozer bucket, so how could he refuse?).  "It's a book by Ecknath Easwaran.  I'm sure that you have never heard of him."

I got quite animated, "Of course I know who Ecknath Easwaran is, I have several of his books."  Bob likely had better chances of winning the lottery or getting hit by space trash than finding another person in his immediate circle who had read Easwaran.  It was that lunch that launched many meaningful conversations over the ensuing years.  For myself, I was thrilled to find someone that had a reading list such as my own.  It is indeed winning the friendship lottery!

Over the ensuing years, these meaningful conversations were sometimes heated, and we learned long ago not to have these conversations in the presence of others.  Why?  Because witnessing two people hewing the beliefs of another is quite a violent thing to witness (like elections).  Others have little or no experience in feeling the needle of the respectful (if not animated) inquiry of another digging into the core of their sacred beliefs. Meaningful conversations, then, get at the heart of what we, as individuals, believe and think and force us to come face to face with the laziness of our acquired thoughts and values as they are more often than not "hand me downs" from our culture, family, friends, rather something crafted by our own inquiry.

So much better to wear an ill-fitting garb made of the cloth we've selected, measured, cut and stitched than a beautifully-fitted garb that we've purchased off the rack because it was pretty and fit.  

Many ideas that are set upon us that seemingly fit, do not allow us to grow. Conversely, if we fit ourselves to a particular idea, then we've merely pigeon-holed ourselves.  Enter, meaningful conversations and the prick of the needle of inquiry.  Having friends who have the courage to have these difficult conversations enable us to wrestling in the mud of our suppositions, superstitions, assumptions, presumptions and all manner of confronting our opinions and beliefs.  All the wrestling exposes those ideas for what they are--likely a strange brew of opinions masquerading as facts, myths accepted as truths and authentic embraces of values that are integral to our core being.

If our beliefs fit us and we've gone through that mud wrestling match and still feel that way, then that simply means one of two things:  either we've gone through an inquiry and arrived at valid conclusions, or the mud wrestling was merely a thrown fight. Regardless, we are always the better for it.

Such conversations require a large degree of love and respect for the other person.  I'm not a believer in the quaint opinion that we have to respect the beliefs of others.  Rather, I believe that we respect people and how they comport themselves and treat others, and we respect their right to believe as they may.   (That whole, "I may not defend what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it").  Most importantly, if we seek to understand why a person believes as s/he does, we sometimes get at the root of the issue--either theirs or ours.

The simple question of "What are you reading?" followed by the insensitivity of NOT allowing my friend to 'wave off' the question, led to several years of meaningful conversations that I will have with Bob that will terminate when we leave this plane of existence.  With the New Year looming ahead, perhaps the second best gift you can give yourself is first a sitting down with yourself to write a "What I believe essay". 

What is the first best gift?  Seeking someone in your life who will mud wrestle it to the ground with you.  Get dirty.  Feel the prick of the needle of inquiry. And revel in the expansion of your mind.


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