In Search of Real Conversation
Our world has changed and energies are flagging. How can we insert more meaningfulness into our lives?
Have you ever found yourself attending a meal or meeting and feel that you’re not present? Instead, you see yourself floating above the table, listening apathetically to a conversation that you seem to have heard already. Some conversations seem to ooze platitudes and presentations of perfect lives. Then there are other conversations that enliven you, leave you brimming with energy. More of these do I yearn.
These days, it seems difficult to have meaningful conversations. Discussions are either overly sanitized or bristling with acerbic jibes. So many people appear to show up with two mouths and just one ear. We’ve lost our ability to listen and engage with civility over differing perspectives. Instead, too many people prefer to keep a rigid point of view and rail against the inanities of the other side.
Dialogos is setting out to tackle this issue and to propose different ways to insert more meaningful conversation into our daily lives, whether that’s in our homes, society in general or at work. Given the ways of the world and a sentiment of general malaise, I’m hoping to re-energize myself and you along the way!
I used to get up at the crack of dawn with a leap and a bound and relish the silence, broken only by the sound of chirping birds. I enjoyed hearing the first plane coming in to land at Heathrow at around 4:30 a.m. Even in the winter. But that well of energy has been missing for me of late. How about you? How much have you felt your energies dwindling? So, I got to wondering what’s up and what can I do to kickstart my motor? I’ve long recognized that connecting with people through profound conversation is a vital way to stimulate my neurones. And, while I’m no neuroscientist, I can attest (and there is plenty evidence that shows) that connecting with people is deeply invigorating. Unfortunately, nowadays, I feel like those types of connections and conversations are far too few and far between.
The forces that drain
Not only have we all gone through the upheaval of a pandemic, with the social distancing, enforced mask wearing, constant testing and mandated quarantines, we’ve seen democracy frittering at the edges, with economies blindsided and businesses dramatically affected (depending on the sector). Today, social encounters aren’t what they used to be. Between the hygiene protocols, political correctness (PC), #metoo, toxic masculinity and more, we’ve lost our ability to connect at a more basic level. There is much less texture and excitement in our relationships. I have heard how, on university campuses in the U.S., boys will not talk to girls who have a beer in their hand for fear of being blamed for something they said or did. As appropriate as the intentions of the PC and #metoo movements may be, we’ve become less tolerant of the messiness of life. In our hyper individualized — often narcissistic — world, we’re also less tolerant toward death. We prefer to keep death at arm’s length and to put the old folks in retirement homes. Whenever possible, we are ducking out of reality. For some of the elites (e.g. Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin…), they’re banking on transhumanism1 to stave off death. But death is the necessary companion of life. In many ways, whether we recognize it or not, in the West, we’re experiencing a profound existential crisis.
Looking for meaning
Do you find a lot of your day is empty of purpose? I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in thirsting for more meaningfulness. I constantly seek a higher meaning in my activities. The book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl — who developed logotherapy — has never been more relevant. First, this book (with Frankl’s haunting experience in Auschwitz) provides a tremendous counterpoint versus the types of traumas we’re experiencing today. We would do well to keep some of our struggles in perspective.
Logos in dialogue
Secondly, Frankl’s logotherapy is based on the foundational idea that our primary motivational force is to find a meaning in life. Through hardship and in plain view of our finitude, we seek our logos (which is Greek for meaning). Given the combination of events and circumstances we’ve collectively gone through, it’s time we had more deep conversations… that we learn to connect in a different and intentional way; and that we find ways to build bridges across divides.
Being aware of the social constructs
So many of the barriers we put up are completely artificial, none less so than in politics with the idea of a ‘right’ and ‘left’ side to every argument. Not only is it difficult for any single individual to describe a party’s entire political platform, the collection of policies typically appears more like a patchwork than a coordinated and congruent whole. Some policies are awkward bedfellows, such as being Pro Life and supporting the bearing of arms. These political parties are abstract constructs. At some level, it seems that some policies are just the consequence of contradicting whatever the opposition proposes. These constructs run riot on our common sense. It’s all too easy to be caught up in one or other party affiliation without actually feeling at ease with the full platform. But for fear of looking weak or admitting a mistake or failure, we rather stubbornly carry on or sheepishly sweep the contradictions under the rug. In the three countries (UK, France and the US) where I follow the politics, admittedly at an arm’s length, it seems that the distinctions between right and left have blurred. In the UK and US, on some policies and certainly in terms of the electorate, large swathes of the right and left swapped places.
We have a choice
In all we do, we have a choice. And by not voting or speaking out we are also making a choice. According to Frankl, the most critical freedom is our ability — i.e. to have the agency — to choose one’s own attitude, which is especially important in the face of difficulty. Frankl asserted that meaning [in our life] can be an objective reality rather than just an illusion or fancy. But it’s up to us to take the reins. As explained by Dr Melissa Madeson, “[h]umans have both freedom and responsibility to bring forth their best possible selves by realizing the meaning of the moment in every situation.” [Source: PostivePsychology] It is up to us to find that meaning.
Dealing with the messiness
In a globalist world where we’re geared to “like” and accept everybody, where we’re all equal and bound for the same, nothing and nobody stands out. That’s part of the problem of tuning everyone to achieve equal outcomes. Such a state of being is neither tenable nor desirable. It ignores the basic human need to be differentiated, if not unique. As much as we need to have a sense of belonging, we also want to feel different. This is one of our fundamental paradoxes. The fact is that everyone is a bit of an -ist. We can’t love everyone equally everywhere. It’s fundamentally normal not to trust and like everyone. For starters, no one is perfect. And, frankly, we shouldn’t even strive to be perfect. It’s not what we should be looking for. As Frankl develops, we can find meaning and purpose through the endeavour, through the messy experience of life and loving someone. By figuring out that the way we deal with the challenges of life defines us far more than the trauma or tragedy itself.
Bridging the gap
We now find ourselves in a society that is divisive, aggravated by highly opinionated media that have been murdochised2 in order to survive. Plowing into 2022, I’m worried not only by the double-talk in mainstream media, but the distinct lack of leadership and the rudderlessness of so many people in high office. It was brewing well before the pandemic hit, though when exactly it began is subject to debate. Gaps and wedges seem to be everywhere, cleaving apart friends, families and previously knotted communities. The widening of the gap between the have and have nots has been well chronicled, likely accelerated by the disruptive tsunami of new technologies. We’ve never been more connected, yet feel so utterly disconnected. The loneliness epidemic has been dramatically exacerbated by the Covid pandemic and a mediatized focus on fear. We need now to elevate the debate and find ways to bridge these gaps both metaphorically and materially. To do so, we need to be intentional about how we engage with one another. Each of us will need to find the courage to speak up. And we must carve out the time and energy to lean into the conversations we need and fundamentally want to have.
Join me on a journey
I feel that society — in the western world at least — is lost, if not sick. Between the self-righteous left and an adamant right, we have lost our ability to have tough yet civil conversation. In my work, I see a desperate need to reconnect with others. When we engage properly, we gain energy from deep encounters with complete strangers, much less our friends and colleagues. We must find a way to break through the platitudinous protocols that suffocate conversation and strip us of adventure. Are you ready to join me on a journey?
With Dialogos, I’d like to explore ways for us to re-ignite conversation, admit our frailties and imperfections and, without need for judgment, listen and learn together. I want to look at how we got here, the things that are holding us back and identify ways to spark discussion. Along the way, we might together help to heal society.
Going forward, I want to explore three different avenues for how to insert more meaningful conversation into our lives:
in our private lives, for example at dinner
in society at large, for example with strangers in the street
and in business, in such a way that fosters engagement and more cogent strategies.
In which of the three areas above are you most interested? Please add in your thoughts in the comments. Civil rebuttals and spirited rejoinders are entirely welcome.
In the next letter, we’ll be looking at what constitutes a meaningful conversation.
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Transhumanism (per Britannica): “a social and philosophical movement devoted to promoting the research and development of robust human-enhancement technologies. Such technologies would augment or increase human sensory reception, emotive ability, or cognitive capacity as well as radically improve human health and extend human life spans.”
By ‘murdochised’, I mean that media outlets are crafting editorial lines and distinctly and deeply anchored in a political party line or a specific perspective. Each media professes to have ‘its’ truth. There is no attempt to provide objective analysis.