Monday, December 21, 2009

Communication : Pitfalls and Potentials

One of the joys of blogging is discovering (and creating) a far-flung community of like-minded thinkers. Writing is thinking, and only the few are willing to pay the price exacted by regular excursions into the realm of personal thought.

DawnTreader, from Sweden, has a weekly post where she shares a meaningful quote. This week she posted a quote from the book Slow Man by 2003 Nobel Prize winner: J.M. Coetzee --

"There are the words themselves, and then, behind or around or beneath the words, there is the intention. As he speaks he is aware of the boy watching his lips, brushing aside the word-strings as if they were cobwebs, tuning his ear to the intention."

I see in this quote, a potential recipe for madness. Let me explain...

I am a truth seeker and a traveler. I grew up on the tail-end of the hippie generation, graduating high school in 1971. Even back then, I had an analytical bent. I enjoyed math, literature, and sports. But perhaps even more, I longed for deep personal interaction.

One of my sisters once said to me, "Why can't you just be shallow, like the rest of us?"

My sister did and does perhaps represent the majority opinion and life-style. For many, and perhaps most, life is rarely deep and meaningful. Usually it's just there.

Against this back-drop of shallowness, an analytical, caring, seeking, listening person is out-of-place. Coetzee's character, who brushed "aside the word-strings as if they were cobwebs, tuning his ear to the intention..." reminds me of an earlier self, a self who nearly drove himself crazy.

Back in the day, often during parties, hanging out with friends, or even playing chess with a friend, I would listen for the meaning behind the words. "What do they really mean..."

This not only led to isolating speculation, it led to alienation... I was often at least one step removed from a conversation. I was listening to the words, but at the same time searching for the intention, the motivation, the true meaning of what was being said.

It was maddening. Like a computer caught in an infinite loop, my brain and psyche would thrash upon itself fruitlessly.

I think this went on for several months, and I grew in despair. Some of my friends became worried. But one of them set me free!

"Don, what if people were just saying what they mean, and meaning what they say?"


After processing that profundity for a while, I tested it, and he/she was right. (I say he/she because I can't remember who said it to me. Surely a Zen master in disguise. I think her name was Ann.)

Since then I have learned that most people, most of the time simply say what they mean and mean what they say. If I have any doubt, I just ask a simple follow-up question. How liberating!

I have also learned that some people, some of the time, cloak what they mean in what they say. These people are in touch with a depth inside of themselves.

These are the people where "brushing brushing aside the word-strings as if they were cobwebs, tuning his ear to the intention..." is an appropriate response. With these people, deep, meaningful conversation is possible.

One meaning of converse, is to share views by talking. It involves give and take, questions and answers, regarding and being regarded. Like a dance it has beauty and grace.

Conversation of this graceful sort reminds me of another quote from SeptemberMom's blog: "In life as in dance: Grace glides on blistered feet." Alice Abrams, the author of that quote, implies that artistry requires "blistered feet."

The Art of Conversation is no different. Done poorly, it can lead to misunderstanding and pain. Done well, it can lead to friendship, community, insight, and growth.

In conversation, one size does not fit all. Not all who walk, dance.


  1. What drove me crazy was similar but different. I remember coming in from recess, in the third grade and watching a bunch of kids standing, talking and laughing in the back of the room, and it seemed to me that they did naturally what I seemed to have to think about and understand first. I needed a reason for what I did and what I said before I did and said it. Being surrounded by people who hardly seemed to be thinking at all, while I couldn't help thinking drove me crazy, and I slowly sank into nerdness.

  2. Thanks for mentioning my blog today! I feel honored :) I'm always on the hunt for a meaningful conversation. Drives my husband crazy most of the time. Every once in a while, I'll be lucky enough to engage with another person in a give and take conversation. Those can be some of the best "highs" in life. I think that is why I love blogging so much. I can always jump into a conversation with so many interesting people.

    I hope you and your family have a wonderful new year full of love, hope, happiness, health, laughter and good conversation!!!

  3. Merry Christmas!
    Your comment from your sister made my day.
    I often wonder (it doesn't last long) why I can't be "shallow like everyone else"... The holidays are the worst for it.

    But on that note..
    Merry Christmas! :) Be well, friend.

  4. It's good to hear from someone like you every now and then.

    Just today on the drive home, I was thinking quite clearly that I have to stop trying to get so far inside people's heads, trying to literally think what they're thinking as if I have any real's something I've done for many years--maybe my whole life, who's to say?--and have only recently backed away from, but now I really just have to learn to let go. I can't control people and I can't predict them. Sad but true.

  5. @Dennis: While no two people are alike, some are more alike than others... and others... not so much. Dealing with that reality is part of growing up, maturing, and achieving a few "aha" moments.

    @September: I'm not surprised that you're often on the hunt for a good conversation. You have... depth. That's probably why you love poetry also. It's a deep medium. Thanks for the well-wishes.

    @Chase: And yet in the midst of the shallowness, along comes someone like your sister, with a gift that moves you to tears. Life is full of contradictions and hope.

    @Saphron: I'm glad you found this post. I can relate to your dilemma: "...stop trying to get so far inside people's heads..." It's all speculation and maddening. (And never "spot-on.")