What do you remember most from your travels? When you tell people about the places you have been—near or far—what is it that you recount? Perhaps you are able to recite the height of the Eiffel Tower or the detail the age of the Pyramids at Giza, but it is more likely you will tell someone a story. And most likely that story will include a conversation.
Maybe you will talk about that half hour you spent with the shopkeeper on Bethlehem’s main street after he invited you to sit for tea in his shop. Or you might recount the tale of the owner of a pub in Ballyvaughn, Ireland who listed for you all the many reasons why Brexit was a very bad idea. (Or the Beatles’ tour guide in Liverpool who assured you Brexit was a wonderful thing!) Perhaps you will remember aloud the owner of the winery in Hungary who convinced you to dance with her. Or maybe you will tell of the young Canadian couple you and your wife met at a cafeteria in Grand Canyon National Park and how they described what it was like to perform with Cirque du Soleil. You might even share the story of the Mississippi homeowner who tearfully told you of having his home devastated by Hurricane Katrina. I am convinced that most of the real joy and meaning of travel is found in the people we meet and in having good conversation with them.
It is said that Irish philosopher and poet John O’Donahue loved to ask the question, “When was your last great conversation with someone?” [Walking in Wonder, p. 183.] It is a great question, and it makes me think, “what makes a good conversation?”
A few hunches on my part. First, in good conversation there is at least some deep sharing and personal reflection. Talking about the weather is nice but only gets us so far. Good conversation is about revealing our heart. Second, good conversation allows plenty of space and time for silence. Talking over each another is not conversation. Mutual interruption is not conversation. Taking time to absorb what is shared goes a long way in making conversation good. Third, good conversation is also unhurried. When I am thinking about my dentist appointment later in the day I am less likely to be available in the present. Finally, all of this means that good conversation requires some level of trust. I will only reveal something valuable when I believe it will be treasured and not cast aside.
Again, John O’Donohue gives us four things to ask ourselves, questions that help us to “locate” the good conversations in our lives. (I can’t seem to find the original written source for his questions, but I was led to them by pastor/author Winn Collier in his blog, and I find them to be true no matter who said them.):
When was the last time you had a great conversation, in which you overheard yourself saying things that you never knew you knew?
When was the last time you had a great conversation where you heard yourself receiving from somebody words that absolutely found places within you that you thought you had lost?
When was the last time you had an encounter with another that created a sense of an event of a conversation that brought the two of you on to a different plane?
When was the last time you had a great conversation that continued to sing in your mind for weeks?
Based on these criteria, I feel like I have work to do. Yet, I must admit I have had glimpses of the realities suggested in these questions. And I am incredibly grateful for every person who has ever been my conversation partner. You know who you are.
Spiritual Practice: Start A Conversation
I am an introvert. Everything else being equal, I would just as soon recede into the background and be an observer of life. But I try not to. Because I know that discovery, growth, and wonder are to be found in conversation. Listening and (genuinely) responding to the words of another can open up new worlds. You would think I would be better at this. As a pastor I spent my entire working life encountering, supporting, and listening to people. But conversation? I’m not sure.
So here is the practice—for me and for you. Initiate a conversation. No matter how awkward, open up an area for speaking and listening between you and another. If that person is a stranger, a resident of a different land than your own, or a person with a history or culture unlike yours—all the better. And stay with the conversation. Do not rush off. Do not find something better to do. Do not let confusion beat you. Do not let the silence make you afraid. Do not worry when you stumble. Do not give up on the person to whom you are listening. Do not hold back the words which are given to your heart. Do not speak too soon.
Unsurprisingly, I am not finished with John O’Donahue yet. His brother, Pat, shares this final thought about conversation in his “In Memoriam” postscript to John’s last book:
Good conversation is the enemy of falsity, facade and shallowness. It chases the truth of things, it demolishes the flimsy foundation of facade and it penetrates the depths so as to soar into unfolding possibility. [Walking in Wonder, p. 184.]
May the Spirit give us all this kind of conversation! May we all soar into unfolding possibility!