I keep running into a single question whenever I consider what might be done. I must admit the question is holographic, its form mirrors its content. It is at once achingly simple and bewilderingly complex. Evidence of its necessity surrounds us and at the same time this question never seems to arise. It’s a question of difficulty and a frustratingly difficult question.
How can we have conversations that matter?
Put this way it sounds like a plea. At once imponderable and in a way too glib. Let’s begin by looking at the predicament from which this question arises. We are mired in an epidemic of futility. Even as our wider predicament, or at least an array of its subsets: “climate change,” extinction, gross inequality, pandemic war; are at this point impossible to ignore; we seem stuck in a reactive mode, refusing to recognize the distinction between a predicament and a problem. We seem blind to the utter depth of the failures of, not just our institutions, but the foundational habits of thought we cannot get out from under. The more pressing, the harder it is to avoid our difficulties and their ramifications and consequences, the more fiercely we hold onto the most trivial ideas and bankrupt modes of action. Although individually it may be possible to have some awareness of this situation the opportunities, even the potential means with which to carry out such conversations, never get any closer to coming to take place in a social context. Here I’m using bland and vague terminology: ideas, modes of action, social context in an attempt to signify how all-encompassing this difficulty appears to be. Any particularization at this point feels like an opportunity for us to slide away from the seemingly universal nature of this condition by providing the possibility of someone saying, “Well, maybe in that case, but surely not with what matters to me!”
Of course, bland, generalizing terms open up a familiar pitfall. None of this, nothing, exists solely as an abstraction. Abstraction chops the world into bits separated from their vital connections. That these connections reach the level of Everything being in Everything is a realization that should shine at the center of our inquiries. A compass helping us keep our bearings. Even here, the difficulties are deep and disheartening. A compass whose needle spins around wildly proclaiming, “Everything is in Everything!” Is likely to be disorienting. Especially when we are worn out, frustrated, and barely repressing an all pervasive dread as we scramble to function at all.
This brings us to a conundrum. We, no matter how any one of us might feel a certain strength, a certain capacity, a clarity aching to be put to use, are at our whit’s end. One of the appalling destructions that have taken place around us has been the loss of any working knowledge, any experience at all of how people have been able to navigate their differences without having their attempts disintegrate into the most reflexive, knee-jerk, reactions. We stand precarious, one imagined slight away from total panic, from hysteria, from lashing out with verbal and even physical violence. Attempting to bring people together for any purpose other than maintaining this knife-edge precarity feels like the most reckless and senseless act. The more people need to air out what they see as their plight with those they consider others beyond the Pale the more reckless and foolhardy it is to contemplate bringing them together.
This aspect of our predicament seems obvious enough. What’s harder to fathom is how close we are to the crumbling edge of this abyss in any circumstance if we begin to make an effort to veer from the script. This proscription against “rocking the boat” has gone from being a stodgy bourgeois platitude to a bit of sound advice if we care for our safety. Before getting any further at all we are shackled with the assumption that we must be mad to try to break such a valuable social taboo. Seen another way, it appears to be nothing more than sadistic to rattle people’s cages when they feel so far gone already. All of these reservations leave us struggling to imagine how to begin.
Begin what? You might ask. I do understand that all this hemming and hawing has done little to clarify what all the fuss is about. And this is why I say the question is holographic. The difficulties it points to are wrapped around any attempt to bring it up. Perhaps it would be useful to elaborate on how the point of the question appears from here.
Imagine we are all playing a game. The rules and even the habits of play, the gambits all familiar and well known. Of late, come to think of it, for as far back as we can remember, the game has been getting less and less enjoyable. It’s gotten harder to win, but even more alarming, even when we have won there just isn’t anything rewarding about it. Winning draws envy and makes us fearful. Losing…, well there’s a lot more of that than we remember. Something’s gone wrong with the game, “It’s just not fair….” While we all feel this way. While we also all have a pretty good idea that everyone else has a similar view. We find it impossible to talk about the game and how its played. Whenever we try to bring up this avenue of approach we are accused of breaking the rules…. People haven’t gotten any better at playing the game or getting satisfaction out of it; but they have gotten very good at finding and taking advantage of any apparent weakness in the others. Great satisfaction, perhaps the only satisfaction now available, is taken in throwing the others off balance, making them pay for our own discomfort and unease, “Well, somebody’s got to pay!”
It’s gotten to the point where we’re so entangled with the dysfunctional roles we feel we have no choice but to identify ourselves with that any drift that smells of disturbing these roles is taken as a grave threat to our very existence. This sense of threat trumps any awareness of actual threats and creates a perverse incentive to actively ignore any vital self-interest in favor of defending roles we don’t quite understand how we fell into.
From the bottom of our individual holes it appears that we are assaulted on all sides by acts of bad faith. Whatever remnant of a realization that we cannot live outside of a fabric of mutual trust we despair at the realization that we have nowhere to turn where that trust might be expected to be returned in kind. Our despair leads us to disguise the fundamental peril this places us in by making great shows of clannishness and our-side-against-the-world. Defensiveness appears to be the last virtue we can even approximate and we grab hold of it as our final life-line.
We’re not wrong when we perceive bad faith closing in on us from all sides. What would terrify us even more would be to acknowledge that those we accuse of bad faith are simply using the same defensive self-justifications we have fallen into. The horror of realizing that bad faith feeds on itself and can only flourish when we refuse to see how we ourselves are infected is just one horror too far for us to go. This, the mechanism of the shadow, condemns us to ride the consequences to the gates of hell…. We know that. There can be no genuine innocence in this regard. Not now. Not after all the history still in living memory.
The abused becomes the abuser. This stark equation appears unavoidable. Especially as we come to feel that any external justification, any stab at escaping responsibility for ourselves, a responsibility that in our profound exhaustion only registers as insupportable guilt and a shame we feel it would be suicidal to acknowledge, we fall to the work of destruction with the grim and dogged persistence of the damned.
The game, the impulse to play that is central to life and living, has devolved into this one final defensive gasp, “Let it be someone else’s fault!” We are gripped in a game of chicken. The only available out appears to be to be the last one to admit there’s anything wrong.
So this is the atmosphere in which we must approach the question at hand. How can we begin to approach a meaningful conversation – not just with those who already agree with us or who we feel would be compatible with our peculiarities – how do we do this with those we need to do it with the most?
As soon as such a suggestion is made there is a reaction, “It’s their fault! Why should I have to listen to them?” Said or unsaid; acknowledged or not; this feeing poisons the well before we even begin.
You see, we fall into a trap of urgency. Out of the confusion of our predicament we are overly sensitive to someone else’s sense of urgency while at the same time hyperventilating with whatever we’ve latched onto as the one thing that must be made to happen. We’re like…, a herd of cats. The proverbial herd of cats: fickle, nervous, and suspicious. We have no patience for anyone else’s agenda just as we feel no one gives proper credence and respect to our own. In such an environment we vibrate between extreme, existential urgency and a drugged, soporific lethargy. When into this mix someone stumbles, asking of us to, “Just talk. No agenda. Let’s just see what comes up!” It’s no wonder that most of us just wander away shaking our heads.
But then, this is exactly the course that just might lead us out of our impasse. This is not limited to any so-called, Big Issue. It would be useful in any context with any question we might want to face instead of continuing to go through the motions of acting out roles we already know deep in our bones can do nothing but frustrate us further.
In one sense this might be the easiest thing in the world to give a go. Just pick a time, a date, a place, and invite people under whatever pretense, or lack of one, we might desire. And then, begin.
Now that we’re all at this same point. Let me ask the question again, How to we have a conversation that matters?
I suggest, if you’ve come this far, that you give this some consideration. Each of us is constrained by our own experience, the abilities and capacities we have at this given moment to bring to bear. I’ve been at this point of hesitation so long…. Perhaps you can bring a fresh insight and energy to the question. If you do, please share it with us here.
There are few things I am reasonably sure of. One is that following our present pattern will, already has, led us to a very hard place. The other is that there is much that can be done. The mind boggles at how much can actually be done if we were to find a way past this particular impasse….