Friday, January 17, 2014

Re-configuring Your Conversational Universe

I read this saying recently: “Honk if you love Jesus. Text while driving if you want to meet him.” While humorous, the saying also highlights the evolving nature of our language and its potentially dire consequences. d lngwij dat yung ppl uz iz v dfrnt frm wot we tink of az normL. (Over 400 billion text messages like this are being sent every month around the world.) Face it; the bandwidth for language is expanding, and that may be a good thing. My hope is that as a result, the depth of what we talk about does not suffer, that we still value and pursue the things worth talking about.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a long, thoughtful, relaxing conversation about a wide variety of topics, all of which might belong to the meadow of my interest but none of which I needed to kill for dinner. Most of my talking has been held hostage to the gravitational pull of daily affairs, school meetings, problems to address, and pleasant banter. My vocabulary has not improved much as a result. There are only so many ways that you can arrange the same set of words and ideas over the course of a day.

So whither lays a possible change in direction? I can think of three potential ways of re-configuring the universe of personal communication, its appreciation and its exercise: good poetry, intentional engaged reading, and the sustained practice of enriched casual speech.

Good poetry stretches our language skills, as good artwork stretches our perception skills. They could be simple poems like Haiku or lengthy ones like T.S. Eliot’s. What they do so well is move us from curiosity to confusion to confession. Meanings emerge like water bubbling through sand, and deliberately chosen words demand one’s interest, personal commitment, and finally some sort of digestion. Good poems can’t be left alone, and they grow more graceful with longer engagement. One can’t but believe that poems act as a tonic for the soul of our language, and that the whole benefits from these small bits of rich meaning.

Intentional engaged reading refers to sitting down with something that draws the mind forward through story or reflection or good research. Writers like Annie Dillard, Malcolm Gladwell, and Ron Rolheiser come to mind. Even 15-20 minutes a day is sufficient to tease out deeper involvement with some meaning that outlives the experience of the reading itself. The New York Times, the Tablet, or a professional journal would also qualify. The point is to intentionally read something essentially unpredictable and conceptually adventurous. Raise the language bar for yourself.

Finally, there are our regular conversations. What would happen if we were to be less automatic and “casual” about casual speech? There are those who truly speak to others. Think of it as a quietly verbal version of Avatar’s “I see you.” Look at video examples of John Paul II or Pope Francis, along with a number of religious figures, who seem to know that once you truly see another person as one who carries and reflects the dignity of God, you must pay full attention and care about what you say and how you say it. Easier said than done, of course, but you know people who are able to do this well, probably because of simply who they are or have become. All of us have the same capacity. Enriched casual speech just takes practice, intentionality, a certain perspective, and the sharpened personal tools to do so. It’s an exciting learning experience once you start.

Were these three things to be pursued, my guess is that texting will be very poor second.