How a tone of gentleness can impact daily conversations
There’s something about being twenty, ambitious enough to have come to an elite university, and worldly enough to know everything that encourages us to talk. And so much of campus conversation is fruitful; these are a very transformative four years, and I think this is due to our interactions with our peers more than any other single characteristic of collegiate life. Granted, there is a lot of talking at people—a reiteration of rumors and punchlines—and a noticeable absence of ownership of our ignorance. “I don’t know much about that!” “What brought you to this belief?” “Could you tell me more?”
We really underuse this last question. When talking to each other about classes or clubs, we respond to a two-sentence summary with a “That sounds cool!” and move on. No wonder people are still scared of devoting themselves to just one or two things, and stretch themselves thin like they did in high school. We’re moving so quickly all the time, and there is no escape from this violent acceleration even in our lunch visits with friends. When our conversations suffer, so does the whole community.
Why can we not afford to settle on a project or two? Why are we so inattentive toward the people we interact with daily? Why do we not talk to them about what’s most important to them? It’s not that we would be bored; we would be absolutely captivated, I think, by the depths we would find in the stories we would hear. I can think of two reasons why we don’t bother to listen.
First, we’re so used to selling ourselves. It’s how we wrote our admissions essays, how we format our resumes, and what we put on social media. We want to be the right level of quirky, interesting, and hard working. We’re tempted to be suspicious of people who want to “get real” in conversation. Surely, they’re being too open, or searching for holes in our understanding and opportunities to call us hypocrites, or just want to go on a power trip and tell us that our aspirations are dumb to stoke their own egos.
Second, we’re trying too hard, in one sense. We were not built to carry all of the world’s problems; our eyes and ears have natural limits that we’ve completely disregarded. Of course technology is a gift, but how many memes and television shows have occupied our limited attention? How many impressive facts do we pull from the news or Twitter and stuff in our back pockets, at the expense of our reading retention for classes? This isn’t just a problem of instant gratification, but an identity crisis. Are we secure enough to forget ourselves for a second and risk not knowing the most recent meme format, so that we can better learn what’s written on the hearts in our communities? Exchanges between different groups of students will always go up in flames as long as attention is scattered and not actually focused on what is coming out of our mouths. Listening is more work than granting the benefit of the doubt or glazing over everything except the points we share in common. We listen constructively when we erase the refutations we’ve prepared, and instead invite a pause—to breathe, to consider, to go a little deeper.
When we put our expectations and agendas aside, we can enjoy each other’s humanity. I think I speak for pretty much everyone when I say my convictions are formed by very genuine and often painful experiences. I don’t need to speak of these experiences explicitly for them to direct my thoughts and affect my emotional disposition. It’s a powerful moment when we remember that everyone else is influenced in the same way. It gives us so much more to talk about, often many more things in common, and when we hit the root of our disagreement, if we do, it’s a much softer halt. There have been multiple instances this semester in which I have been talking with someone who shares my view on some given topic, and they’ve shocked me with their inconsiderateness and hostile assumptions. Thoughtlessness can infect any conversation and any relationship.
We’ve forgotten the value in being gentle. Gentleness doesn’t require that we give up our beliefs or give in to inappropriate emotional bonding, but if we’re gentle with ourselves, we’re more sensitive to the other’s vulnerabilities. While gentleness doesn’t offer the cure for our disagreements, it helps us lay a finger on what those disagreements really are, without the animosity and hurt of many recent exchanges.
Listening well is worth the best effort we can give it. There are worse things than a loss of time. There are worse things than being hurt by someone you considered a friend until you “got real” with them. I don’t think I need to go down darker paths and visit those worse things. There are many reasons to hope that our campus community is capable of thoughtful conversation; the love we have for our friends, the passion we bring to our studies, and the interest we have in doing something good overcome our ambition and ignorance, so that we know with certainty cor ad cor loquitur.
Lizzie is a sophomore living in Ryan Hall majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and theology with a minor in Constitutional Studies. She is an enthusiastic member of the Notre Dame Ultimate Frisbee team, probably the only Notre Dame cult comparable to PLS. To find her, check the PLS office and the quads, or you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.