A Long Talk with a Good Stranger

If you’ve read between the lines of my past couple of articles, you’ve probably gathered I’ve hit a bit of a rough patch. I’m broken hearted. At first, destroyed, then just devastated, now simply hurt. Notice I say that I hurt, not that “he hurt me”. It is how I am reacting to the situation, how I choose to react, there is no blame, just a feeling, and one that will pass, will heal. I’m doing much better, now. I didn’t cry once yesterday. Or so far, today. And before I go any further, let me be clear, what happened was destined to happen. I guess. It is what it is and I am fine. I still do, and always will, love and respect the man I lost. We have just taken things back to where we started from; friendship. Hurt and hate do not equate. And for this, I am incredibly grateful. I have nothing but good words and happy thoughts about all we shared and about the friendship that lies ahead. Cool. But it has been quiet, no talk, no exchange. In weeks, or has it only been a week? Seems an eternity.

When things get rough, though, I usually retreat a bit, meditate more, run more, sleep more, eat more conscientiously and drink less beer and more water. That things all unraveled during three consecutive weeks of intense travel and stressful work assignments prevented me from my self-prescribed therapy.  So, I unplugged. Traveling, I couldn’t eat as healthy as I should, run outdoors, sleep nearly enough, meditate quietly, or even think clearly, so retreating, unplugging, was my only recourse.

In unplugging, I did pry myself away from social media for a whole week, until I was certain I wouldn’t say something regrettable or publicize an invitation to my pity party, spurring a potential online flash mob of regret. I unplugged. I do this in times of hurt, I either unplug by removing myself from public view, or I unplug from you, if you happen to be the party I need to retreat from, for healing. Unplugging can be subtle, like just not being available, or more substantial; “unfriending” or maybe even “blocking” on social media, or removing conversations and contact information from my devices, not to be hurtful, but to be safe. I need time to reason and there is that period of unreasonableness where I may say something I don’t mean. I just unplug for a bit, regain perspective, and plug back in (unblock, refriend, restore contact information). It’s a “me problem”, and that’s how I deal.

In times of difficulty, we often seek solace in long conversations with good friends, our confidants, the people we trust will listen compassionately and advise with exactly what we want to hear! Or better, yet, sound advice. Cross country travel, long work hours and time zone differences hinder such luxuries. Fortunately, I was able to resort to an equally nourishing and enriching option, on more than one occasion; a long talk with a good stranger.

I am a frequent flier, and am, in fact, somewhere 30,000 feet over Middle America just now. I am, sometimes, a jaded, cynical, traveler. I expect everyone to know and adhere to the unwritten code of conduct aboard an airplane or seated in an airport bar; head down, gaze affixed on some device, or, eyes closed, feigning sleep, means “do not disturb”, and I hang this sign out more often than not. Being out of communication with friends, family, and the man I lost, caused me, perhaps, to lower that sign a little. Or maybe I looked ragged and torn and on the verge of something drastic and people sought to intervene. Whatever the cause, I’ve had some of the deepest, richest, most meaningful, soul-baring conversations I’ve ever had. And with complete strangers. And I haven’t just been on the telling side, I’ve listened, and advised, like the best of friends would. It has been so enriching, so nourishing. I’ve learned a lot, about myself, and others, too.

An Effort to Evolve

A U.S. Marine Corps reservist and young father headed to Chicago on a quick, connecting flight from Minneapolis, a quiet, well-spoken gentleman from Amsterdam at a sushi bar in O’Hare, we spoke of politics and religion, of culture and relationships, of career, and love, an angry, young, middle-eastern traveler and a compassionate, elderly Christian man, engrossed in nurturing and consoling conversation with each other, an exuberant, young Mormon man, just finishing his two-year mission and headed home, a woman near my age, and a kindred spirit, on a long, late, flight home, a unique and wonderful, very married man, brimming with intelligence and witty conversation, on a very long flight home, a recovering cashier at a dollar store, formerly a strong and independent business woman, who I knew was unique with her use of the word “antiquated” in an exchange with the customer before me, a brief and lively conversation with an distinguished older man in the Whole Foods beer aisle; everywhere I turn, another interesting person, another great conversation, a long, long talk with a good stranger.

Again, I’ll find myself, this week, three-thousand miles from home, alone in a hotel room, with only my thoughts, social media, an occasional text or Facebook notification, and the idea of an article to share, to prevent me from the full realization of my aloneness. During the day, with work and my clients and business lunches with familiar, client associates, I am fine. It is in the quiet nights in my room that I am reminded of my solitude and I can hardly wait for my next long, flight home or chance meeting in a restaurant, and, hopefully, a long talk with a good stranger.

 

I With a Capital I

People are interesting. Have you ever noticed, in conversation, how much people enjoy talking about themselves? There is nothing wrong with that, don’t get me wrong, it’s what we do. All of us. We like to share things about ourselves, our experiences, injustices, adventures, helpful information, unbelievable details. Nearly everything we bring up in conversation relates to our personal experience or relationship with the topic at hand. Even when we speak of others, it is usually based on our own personal experience or exposure. It may seem obvious, but we do know more about ourselves, our experiences, our methods for doing things, than anything or anyone else and this becomes our basis for participating in conversation. The trick is to know when you are only talking about you and not listening, really, to anyone else.

Have you noticed how we often refer to ourselves in conversation? Of course we use the word “I”, and in proper grammatical use, it is capitalized when written. It would be weird for us to refer to ourselves in the third person, so this one letter word has been devoted for expression of self as a proper noun. But, when we use the word “I” in conversation, we often place a lot of exaggerated emphasis on it. Instead of just “I”, a single syllable, single letter word, it comes out as IIIIIIIIIIIIiiiiiiiiiii, in about three syllables. If it were a musical note, it would have one of those crazy symbols, a “maxima”, which octuples a whole note, so in 4/4 time, that would be 32 counts or beats. A really long time, that’s my point. It’s emphatically crazy. When we’re trying to get our point across or to be convincing in any manner, we over emphasize the word “I” to add reliability and justification to our statement or position. The more we emphasize the word “I” the more right we are, at least that’s what our subconscious seems to think. We don’t come out and say “I’m right, you’re wrong”, like we did in the second grade, which then usually digressed into the “uh-huh/huh-uh” exchange. How refreshing that would be, as an adult; to spend ten minutes defending your position by simply saying “uh-huh”.

I catch myself doing this and I observe others. Frequently. And, it seems the better we know someone, the more likely we are to engage in this behavior. Once you become more aware of it, more attuned to it, it becomes almost entertaining to observe, in yourself, hopefully so you can fix it, and in others. And though we are all susceptible to falling prey to this self-righteous behavior, anyone who has ever read a book on conversations, charisma, or relationships is aware that the most important part of a conversation is the listening part.

I am often described as quiet. I can be. I try to be, at times. I’m listening. Intently. I am asking salient questions to validate the speaker’s topic and to clarify my understanding. When I speak, I speak carefully without trying to sound too self-absorbed or too self-righteous. It is hard. It is a skill, an acquired skill, and one that is never perfected, but that always takes conscious effort.

With people close to us, family and close friends, the exaggerated “I” comes out. At its worst, the exaggerated “I” is prefaced with the word “well”. Listen for it. Our unsophisticated (egoic) mind uses this combination of words almost like bait, “well IIIIIiiiiii …” and, since we consider ourselves experts on the particular topic (the amount of emphasis on the word “I” is proportionate to the amount of knowledge we feel we have on the topic), our subconscious is begging, begging, begging for someone to ask “why?” That gives us license to unleash our vast wealth of knowledge, information and examples on the topic, further leading to our validity and (self) importance.

One of the more recent examples of the “IIIIIIIiiiii” monster coming out was in a conversation about the “correct” order for brushing, flossing and mouth washing. I honestly cannot remember who the participants in the conversation were, but there were quite a few “IIIIIiiii’s”. No one was right, no one was wrong, and we all had different sources for our (very strong) beliefs. So, did the “IIIIIIiiiii’s” have it? Nope. To my relief, based on this conversation, I was just happy to know that everyone believes, passionately, in solid dental hygiene habits.

Often in, shall we say, “lively” conversation, debates, or, heaven forbid, fights, we feel so passionately about our position or argument, that not only are we using the exaggerated “I”, we use the time the other party takes to state, or restate their position to think through what our response will be. There is no listening whatsoever. I remember this in my former marriage, or, more correctly, the marriage I no longer live in. I would (and rightly so), state my position and my spouse would be so busy rebutting, and usually talking over me, interrupting and getting louder and louder in the process, that he never heard what I said. In other words, there was no conversation, no exchange of ideas or information. Our “conversations” resembled what we see on political panel discussions on television, which I think is the cruelest version of hell and the hell people who don’t listen are going to be banished to.

So, what do IIIiiiii recommend? IIiiii suggest listening carefully to yourself, and of course, to others, in conversation. Be mindful of how you speak and to how well you’re listening. Observe how people begin to react to you differently as you practice listening actively and being genuinely interested in what they have to say. They will begin to make eye contact with you more during conversation, they will lean a little towards you as they speak, and, most miraculously, when they are assured that you are listening and are interested in a compassionate sense, they will stop using the exaggerated IIIIiiiii, and their tone of voice will soften.

When you have the opportunity to speak, keep the “I’s” short, speak clearly but not loudly, make eye contact with everyone in the conversation and allow others their turn to contribute to the conversation. You may not have the chance to expound completely on your topic; learn to let it go. Conversations are like a school of fish; they change shape and shift and move in different directions. Let it go, don’t try to force the conversation, don’t try to force your agenda. Share your ideas and let the conversation evolve. Successful conversation is in the “I” of the beholder. This is the art. This is the key to success in family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, and in business relationships. It’s what IIIIIIiiii try to do.