What's the point of a meaningful conversation?
Connecting the dots and surfacing the meaning
I don’t know about you, but it’s remarkable how some conversations seem to get me completely energized, while others will leave me depleted, empty. There are three types of conversations that seem to fill me most with zest: listening to (and exchanging on) a great story, learning about new things on topics about which I am passionate, and meeting someone new who has had an interesting life story. One of the defining characteristics that is shared in each case is a sense of connection, a bonding. In itself, that makes the conversation meaningful as I love connecting the dots between people and their stories. However, bonding isn’t the only form of meaningfulness. In fact, one can achieve a bigger sense of fulfillment by doing things that are for others. The key to that fulfillment, meanwhile, comes from being aligned with who you are, at a personal level, including stepping into a projected sense of self. Life is about leaning into the challenge, not running from it.
So, the question I want to explore today is: What actually is the point of having more meaningful conversations? As much as people tend to agree that there’s a dearth of intense and fulfilling conversation, it’s not quite obvious why they’re needed. In the models of Infinity and Finitude about which I wrote in Does our common sense still exist?, I talk about the growing distance between these two symbiotic concepts. It’s not about one or the other. It’s about having them work with and within each other.
As was made even more manifest during the pandemic, we have been experiencing a widespread and prolonged existential crisis. On the one hand, there’s been a flight toward safety and a surging desire to do good. On the other hand, there’s a growing intolerance of pain and a propensity to seek convenience and facility over challenge and risk. All that rendered perfectly with clichéd Instagram self-portraits as we dress our legacy and present our case for immortality. The consequence has been that people are less willing to engage in conversations that are tough, require patience and indulgence, and thinking on one’s feet. To the extent that the other person holds a different opinion, especially on a sensitive topic, the tendency is to wish to “win” the debate, or otherwise dismiss the other as “crazy” or “dumb.” If one doesn’t defeat or convince the other, at best, it’s frustrating. At worst, it’s threatening. To the extent that your beliefs are being questioned, you feel like your very existence is under siege. And, the nearer the topic is to matters of life and death, the more emphatically existential it becomes.
An attack on my belief is an attack on me
Take the question of abortion that has dominated the news around the world in wake of the rolling back of Roe versus Wade in the US. It’s a question on which everyone feels the right to have an opinion. Whether it’s about religious beliefs, tenets of freedom or questions of health, abortion is about as emblematic an issue there is for our times. I don’t believe I have ever witnessed two individuals discuss both sides of the topic in a tranquil and reasoned manner. We’re much happier being our emotional selves — or at least we default to that manner in the face of opposition. By being angry, we are enlivened. By defending our beliefs, we are just-ified. By beating back the other, we are doing “good.” But, what actually is good? Is my “good” better than yours? Similarly, in a clash of religions, is my ‘god’ better than yours?
Good to please
Just as some people are content to suggest that the purpose (raison d’être) of a business is uniquely to reward the shareholder (as opposed to a mission to do a greater good), many people feel satisfied that having fun is doing good. In our increasingly individualistic society, replete with narcissists, it’s all too easy to relinquish any need to serve a greater good. It’s far easier to merely live as an individual who relishes the hedonism and physical pleasures of food, drink, laughter and sex. Granted others may be needed for a fuller experience. However, the central concern is about one’s own sense of pleasure. Nothing should get in the way of having fun, after all… life is short. The rationale goes that getting into heated debates with “stupid” people is a waste of my precious time. That’s not meaningful. What matters most is having like-minded people around me with whom I can bond. While I’m all in favor of having fun and experiencing physical pleasure, I believe that we will have a more meaningful existence if we go beyond the physical and ourselves. Especially as I get older, I’ve seen that what really counts is doing things that are bigger than for myself, being at the service of others and trying to make the world around me better off than when I started.
Minding the gap
Having discussions with people on the other side of the aisle on a hotly contested and sensitive topic is not easy. It requires energy. In order for the conversation to have hope of enduring meaningfulness, both sides of the debate must be able to countenance each others’ views, perhaps to learn, appreciate the fuller perspective, grow; and, even, to admit one’s own errors. In our seeking to do good and create our own personal heritage (model of Immortality), we’ve lost our ability to tolerate the inconvenience of challenge and pain. We’d rather cop a blue pill or dull our senses with some contemporary soma (the drug from Brave New World) in order to go on about our lives blissfully.
Defining good as better?
In trying to understand the benefit of having more meaningful conversation, I’ve long connected that meaningfulness to doing good. But who am I to define “good”? My ethical framework doesn’t deserve any special treatment. At the end of the day, each person must find their own path and define their own sense of meaningfulness. Personally, I want to do good in a way that challenges me. As with the two modes of Infinity and Finitude, it’s important to reconcile them, to lean into one’s own paradoxes, foibles and inconsistencies.
With Dialogos, I am seeking to make the world a bit better by building bridges and helping people get together, in spite of their differences of opinion. My idea of doing good is measured against my own personal mission. It’s not some objective understanding of what’s good or what’s right. I’m not intending to attack people’s beliefs. Rather, my mission is to elegantly elevate the debate and connect dots, ideas and people. In this vein, I would like to encourage people to seek out truth, to learn to listen better and to question why it is you hold a belief so dear that everyone else needs to adhere to it? What’s the meaning behind your determination? In a world where meaningfulness seems to be found in inverse proportion to the burgeoning noise and sense of fear, it’s time we found the courage and strength of character to engage in more meaningful conversations. There is a chance it will be invigorating and, along the way, make us all a bit brighter and better.
Bonding isn’t the only form of meaningfulness. In fact, one can achieve a bigger sense of fulfillment by doing things that are for others. The key to that fulfillment, meanwhile, comes from being aligned with who you are, at a personal level, including stepping into a projected sense of self. Life is about leaning into the challenge, not running from it.
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