The Power of Conversation ~ Rev. Chris Kell
According to a study by Indiana University researchers, Americans have experienced an increase in depression and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, but those who were able to keep frequent in-person social connections had better mental health outcomes. So, what’s the best way to get through this period of isolation? Mental health experts say it’s finding ways to connect with others – despite the circumstances. Let’s take a look at how our conversations help us make those connections.
Talk starts at 17:55
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*Talk transcription for the Deaf and hard of hearing available below.
Good morning. My name is Chris Kell. I am filling in for Rev. Melanie this morning as she deals with her family emergency.
Except for the circumstances, I am very happy to be here today. I will begin with a quick background check to introduce myself to anyone who may not know me.
I am originally from Atlanta; I grew up in the Morningside/Virginia-Highland area, and met my husband Tom in Atlanta. Our family has moved around quite a bit, but we were living in Atlanta when One Spirit came together with a group of like-minded people, many of whom are still involved and whom you all know. About 3 ½ years ago, we returned to Minneapolis, MN, where we had lived before, this time to be together with our 3 children.
A few years ago, actually during the same period of time when One World came into being, I attended One Spirit Interfaith Seminary and in 2013 was ordained as an Interfaith/Interspiritual minister.
My time at the seminary gave me the opportunity to deeply explore my own inner life, and for the first time I felt like I was an interconnected and valued member of not one, but two interconnected spiritual communities.
Since that time, my spiritual growth has continued through my interaction and connection with those same like-minded people. One important way I have been able to do this is by exchanging ideas and insights based on spiritual principles through group discussions and conversations.
These people, and my many conversations and interactions with them, as well as with so many others along the way, have brought me much happiness.
Back in 2011, one of the objectives in coming together as a spiritual community was to create a safe space where we could deepen our connections with each other while enriching our spiritual understanding. The idea was, and continues to be, to exchange and discuss our observations, perceptions, and viewpoints, thereby growing spiritually and emotionally from the understanding and wisdom that comes out of such sharing and camaraderie.
In a word, much of our spiritual growth, both as individuals and community, comes from our conversations.
I’d like to tell you a story that illustrates why and how conversation is so powerful.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were walking down a footpath together.
Okay, I know this sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this really is a true story, as told by Brett and Kate McKay, authors of The Art of Manliness blog.
So, it was the evening of September 19th, 1931. If we had been there back then, we would have seen two young men walking along a garden path. Both men were war veterans, scholars, and professors at Oxford University, and they shared a love of old literature, especially mythology.
At that time, Tolkien and Lewis were dear friends who often discussed their work while on a leisurely stroll, and on this particular warm autumn day, they were engaged in deep conversation with one another.
These two friends were in many ways a study in contrasts. Lewis had a ruddy complexion and thickly set build. His clothes were loose and shabby, and his voice boomed as he spoke. Tolkien was slender, a sharp dresser, and was a more subtle speaker. Lewis was impetuous and forceful, while Tolkien was more reserved.
Besides differences in personality, the men also were divided by something more fundamental: Tolkien was a faithful Catholic since childhood, while Lewis was a committed atheist since the age of 15. However, over the last few years, Lewis’ position on God had slowly been softening, partly due to his friendship with Tolkien and the many conversations they’d had since their first meeting.
Tolkien and Lewis at times would stay up until the early hours of the morning discussing their love of mythology. And I for one am so happy they did, as we now have stories like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis in particular often shared with Tolkien his fondness for stories about love and peace, forgiveness, and justice, telling his friend Tolkien that he, Lewis, the rational atheist, felt “mysteriously moved” by such stories of sacrifice, death, and resurrection.
All his life, Lewis felt the tug of two seemingly contradictory impulses: a deep, unsatisfied longing for beauty and joy, as well as the desire to make sense of the world rationally. But, during his conversations with Tolkien and their other friends, Lewis realized that these two systems of thought were not necessarily at odds, and could in fact be reconciled. He realized that faith can be the greatest catalyst for imagination, and that imagination can create a reality more real than that experienced by rational observation alone. A new possibility opened to Lewis: one in which he could bring his entire self to the Christian faith — mind and heart, intellect and intuition. It was a transformative, revelatory moment ultimately arrived at through friendly, yet powerful conversation.
Lewis not only journeyed from atheism, to theism, to Christianity, he discovered an entirely new path for his life. He went on to become the most famous Christian apologist of his time, the creator of his own illuminating myths in the form of the Narnia series, and a writer whose works continue to be prized today.
For Lewis, a series of conversations begun on an easy autumn stroll turned out to be something like a railroad switch diverting him from the track he was on and sending him in a completely new direction.
Tolkien, through intelligent, caring, and articulate dialogue, was able to open up a whole new perspective to a man he deeply cared about and wished to help through what seemed to be a serious spiritual block.
The Power of Conversation is connection through words. I shared the story of these discussions between two friends (and two of my most favorite authors) because I believe it reveals the potentially transformative power of face-to-face conversation and the connections that are created and nurtured when people come together and share their thoughts, feelings, and emotions through their words. Even in this age of Zoom, when actual physical presence is discouraged and often even dangerous, being able to interact at least virtually with family, friends, and co-workers can give us a sense of connection through verbal communication.
In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, MIT professor Sherry Turkle documents the troubling evidence that people today are increasingly ignoring, in her words: “conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas.” She believes that we hide behind computer screens and communicate as much as possible through email and text. We justify this on the basis of efficiency, and the fact that in having the ability to edit our messages, we can be more “ourselves” and make sure we say things “just right.”
That kind of communication is usually superficial at best. When we no longer have the personal connection face-to-face conversations allow, we lose all chance of the sort of intimacy Tolkien, Lewis and their friends enjoyed and cherished. Emotional involvement with the people we communicate with is non-existent, and while that sort of interaction may be acceptable professionally, personally it leaves us bereft of the attentive, caring, and compassionate human contact we all crave no matter what environment we are in.
Bloggers Brett and Kate McKay tell us that when our conversation is limited to electronic messages in a business or work context, we are unable to hear each other’s voices, read each other’s body language, or see each other’s facial expressions. Without face-to-face dialogue, they say, texts and emails can shrivel our empathy and feeling of true connection. LOL is somehow not the same as actually hearing another’s laughter come rolling out, or watching someone’s face light up with pleasure when complimented on a job well done.
Information shared through personal conversation can validate our opinions and beliefs. Personal dialogue may also change our point of view through simple phrases like: Wow, I never thought of that; I understand; Oh yeah, the same thing happened to me! Conversation reminds us that we can’t be right about everything all the time, and opens our eyes to other possibilities.
Mark Seton and the folks at Pursuit of Happiness.org make three observations about the correlation between conversation and happiness. First, people who have one or more close friendships appear to be happier. Second, the sharing of personal feelings (self-disclosure) plays a major role in the relief of stress and depression. And third, listening carefully and responding in encouraging ways (called Active-Constructive Responding) is a very effective way to cultivate positive emotions and deepen relationships.
Moreover, they tell us that:
People who have one or more close friendships are happier. It doesn’t seem to matter if we have a large network of close relationships or not. What seems to make a difference is if and how often we cooperate in activities and share our personal feelings with a friend or relative. “Active-constructive responding,” which is the ability to express genuine interest in what people say, and respond in encouraging ways, is a powerful way to enrich relationships and cultivate positive emotions.
Researchers have discovered that it is important to engage with others when the opportunities arise. According to neuroscientist Dr. Erman Misirlasoy, when pooling data across several studies researchers found that life satisfaction decreased as more time was spent alone and increased as people spent more time talking to others. They determined that the more frequently we engage in deep and purposeful discussions with other people, the happier we feel about our lives.
The doctor tells us that our words are a major tool for building a bridge between ourselves and others. We long for social connection, and it’s no surprise that a lack of human interaction harms our satisfaction with life. Other people provide us with support, warmth, and intellectual stimulation.
According to author and philosopher John Armstrong, people secretly yearn for real conversation, because we long to encounter the best and most illuminating versions of other people. We long for the truth of ourselves to be seen and liked by another person, and we seek the acknowledgement and validation of our emotions and feelings that comes from a heartfelt conversation with someone willing to listen.
Such communication is especially hard right now, but not impossible. And in a time when hugs, handshakes, and even being closer than six feet is no longer the norm, face-to-face contact, even electronically by computer or telephone, becomes that much more important. Staying together while staying apart is a challenge, but not an unsurmountable one. Online interactions are not only helpful for connecting with larger groups of people such as co-workers; they afford us a much needed way to reach friends and relatives when personal interaction is difficult. While not able to provide physical face-to-face contact, programs like Zoom, Google Hang Outs, Skype, and many more, are viable substitutes, even if not optimal, for the time being.
According to one study, the need for connectivity and belonging is fundamental in humans, not only when we are born but also in adult life (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Positive psychology research highlights how pleasant social interactions increase our personal well-being and provide greater life satisfaction and happiness. And whether we talk to others for information-sharing, advice-giving, or just to vent, talking things out helps us put everything in perspective, which then helps build our resilience and our ability to cope when things don’t go according to plan.
Taking the time to talk out our emotions also enables us to work through situations that have caused difficulties. Often we can figure out how the problem occurred and what to do to fix it. I caused myself a really embarrassing incident, and a quite possible hurtful situation, while I was at the seminary.
Problem-solving through conversation can ease tension, soften hurt feelings, help lift negative feelings, and release resentment, anger, and blame. Personally sharing feelings and emotions solidifies relationships. Love, appreciation, gratitude, delight—sharing these feelings builds affectionate bonds that often last a lifetime. Without taking the time to call and talk personally—as embarrassing and painful as that may be—hurt feelings, resentment, and anger are left to fester and boil over, often with no warning.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, founder of “Positive Psychology”, says spending time with friends or colleagues builds positive emotions, a key component of happiness. Social relationships are vital for a happy and fulfilling life, he says, and a vital element of social interaction is good conversation.
To have all of that stop suddenly is jarring, to say the least.
I expect all of us by now are aware that people who really miss being around others and who may not have outlets or adequate support systems can become lonely. Most of us are used to getting out daily, and even those who are retired or don’t work usually make trips to run errands or visit friends. However, during this time of involuntary social distancing, (or what some may call house arrest), even those who normally prefer solitude may find themselves unprepared for the feelings of loneliness that may arise.
There has been, of course, much discussion by many professionals about how to cope with social distancing and quarantine during this pandemic. So, what conclusions have the experts come to? What do they suggest is the best way to get through this period of isolation?
Well, one way that seems to always top the list of coping mechanisms is to find ways to connect with others – despite the circumstances we find ourselves in right now.
These experts, as well as our own common sense, tell us that staying in contact with other people not only staves off boredom, it is also critical for minimizing a sense of isolation. Talking to others who are going through the same thing can provide a sense of community and empowerment. And, reassuring a friend who’s feeling stressed out or worried with calming words of support can have the added benefit of soothing ourselves at the same time.
Human connection is vitally important for mental health and well-being. Humans are wired to have feelings. Whether you’re talking with a friend or loved one at a social distance, via video, or on the phone, it’s important to strive for more than just a surface connection. The deeper the connection you establish, the more you’ll both benefit.
The folks at HelpGuide.org, a nonprofit mental health and wellness website, have suggestion on how to really connect with others:
First, move beyond small talk. To really establish a connection that will ease feelings of loneliness and depression, be willing to take a risk; open up and deepen the conversation. Sticking to small talk and limiting conversations to a shallow and superficial exchange of meaningless words can actually make us feel even more lonely.
Then, share about yourself. Open up about what you’re going through, the feelings you’re experiencing. It won’t make you a burden to the other person. Rather, your friend or loved one will most likely be flattered that you trust them enough to confide in them. It may be just what it takes to encourage the other person to reciprocate, and quite possibly deepen the bond between you.
Finally, remember that nobody needs to be “fixed. Loneliness relief comes from making a connection and being heard by someone. The person you talk to doesn’t need solutions, he or she should be able to simply talk to you without feeling judged or criticized.
Knowing how to express our emotions tactfully and “talk it out” is vital if we want to feel close to people and to sustain our relationships. People are constantly crying out for attention to their feelings, but seldom does anyone listen. Those who do are rewarded with lifelong friendships, exciting romances, happy relationships, and spiritual growth.
Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, maintains that:
“Our power of creation is the word. The word is the most powerful tool that humans possess. It is the tool of magic. . . . The word is not just a sound or a written symbol. The word is a force; it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think, and thereby to create the events of your life.”
When you look back at your life you may realize that the most beautiful moments you remember are the moments when you are expressing your joy, not when you are looking for it. And I know this is true because it happened for me. The conversations I’ve been a part of at both One World Spiritual Center and One Spirit Seminary helped me find friends, rediscover myself, and renew my commitment to continued spiritual growth.
Remember what Don Miguel tells us: The word is a force; it is the power you have to express and communicate.
May the force be with you.