In recent weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about conversation. And the more I think about that, the more aware I am of a word that sounds very similar: conversion.
We today may not realize it, but those two words are from the exact same root. Both combine the Latin con (with, together) and versere (turn). Put those together, and both words mean a turning toward something, living, dwelling, a way of life.
That doesn’t sound much like conversations we have today, does it? When we talk with each other, more often than not we seem to be talking at each other; talking over each other. We’re trying to prove we’re right.
That has nothing to do with dwelling. Nothing to do with turning toward each other or a new life focused on God, which was the primary meaning of conversion in English for its entire history.
Conversation, though, shouldn’t be about right and wrong–it should be about learning from each other.
The first weekend in April, we took our daughter to Accepted Students day at our alma mater, St. John’s College in Annapolis. St. John’s is known as “The Great Books School,” where for four years students read the foundational texts of western civilization and then…talk about them. That’s where the magic happens–in the conversation. Each class is just twelve to eighteen students gathered around a table with a tutor (professor), talking about what they just read. All conversation starts from the common text–outside material isn’t allowed, to guarantee equality.
That day spent at my old college struck me in my core. It reminded me not only of why I loved this place where I spent four years, this place that shaped me into who I am, but it also made me keenly aware of something our culture today has rather deliberately turned its back on: the importance of true conversation.
At SJC, they call it “the dialectic.” That’s just a Greek version of the same word, “conversation.” It means “relating to the art of reasoning about probabilities.” I emphasis the word art there, because that’s rather crucial. Science, my friend, has right and wrong answers. But art doesn’t. Art isn’t about the solution or the answer or the final product. Art is about the discovery, the emotions stirred, and the enlightenment reached.
In a visit just before we went back to St. John’s, someone said, “We can talk about anything. We might not agree, but we can talk about it.” I of course assured them that agreement isn’t necessary. But as that sentence echoed in my heart for the next several weeks, it made me realize anew that agreement is another way of saying “right and wrong.” If we agree, that means you think I’m right and I think you’re right. We take the same stance, the same position.
And that’s all that matters in society today, isn’t it? Where you stand. What side of the issue you’re on. And if you’re not on my side…well then, I can’t even talk to you.
Oh, my friends. Does this hurt your heart like it hurts mine? Because if we can’t talk to, can’t converse with, people regardless of our stance, then we cannot possibly ever learn. And if we stop learning, we stop growing. And if we stop growing, we stagnate. And if we stagnate, we waste away to nothing.
Part of the “magic” of my college experience was that those eighteen people around the table came from every possible background, religion, and perspective. We had atheists sitting next to Muslims sitting next to Hindus sitting next to Orthodox Jews sitting next to Christians, all discussing the Bible…or Kant…or Thomas Jefferson. And it wasn’t about who was right. It wasn’t about who agreed. Never once do I remember deciding I didn’t like someone because of a position they took in class. Why? Because we all took whatever positions the conversation demanded, and then we adjusted those positions throughout–BECAUSE OF–the conversation.
The only thing that mattered was that we were all willing to engage. We were all willing to be part of the conversation, part of the dialectic. We were all willing to LEARN from each other and the text.
Then I look at the world around me, and I see people unwilling to read a book or article because the author is from the opposite political party, therefore they must be disagreed with on EVERYTHING. I see people demonized because of one opinion they hold. I see conversation shut down in favor of shouting matches or (even worse in my opinion) idle chit-chat that never even tries to touch on things beyond people and events.
My husband and I have been talking a lot about how to restart conversation in our world. We exist in a perpetual state of it in our own home. It’s kinda funny. We start out talking about practical things like who’s going to drive Xoe to ballet, and yet within a few minutes we’re somehow on the philosophy of learning or spiritual awakening or some other abstract idea. Through those conversations, we reach new understandings, ask new questions that send us on new searches, explore our own hearts and souls, and grow ever close to each other.
How do we bring that outside our home though? How do we engage people who don’t seem interested in it? How do you stir a heart that likes to be set in its ways?
I know that the answer is through conversation–through conversion. We all have to be willing to dwell with each other in our words. We have to be willing to turn toward each other and truly engage, truly explore. We have to be willing to learn, not just to prove something.
I want to have real conversations again. Do you? If so, then maybe we can do it together. And then with others, and then with others. We don’t have to be “like minded.” We just have to be willing to engage. And if we do that, we’ll all end up growing. Learning. Discovering. And oh, the “magic” that will happen.