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Small Talk and the Amish

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I wrote this letter to my friends in 2008 - Ron

It has been a while since I have had a meaningful conversation with many of you. That fact, combined with an email from a friend about the prevalence of small talk, put my brain in motion and the result is this letter.  It is rather long and it took me hours to sort through my thoughts and collect them into something remotely coherent.   With luck, this email will reach you at a good time and you will REALLY be able to read it.  It might provoke thought and as such it will become a sort of time delayed discussion. Without luck, it will catch you when you are distracted and you will just skim the letter and move on to your next task.  In either case, it will serve as a very long way of saying “Hello“.


One of my best friends sent me an email that had a poem and in the poem was the line “Even those I loved the best are strange - nay they are stranger than the rest”.  (Strange meaning unfamiliar in this context)   To him, it brought up the question of “How much do we really know about the people in our lives?”   Much of our communication is reflexive and rote.  How often have you asked or been asked “How are you doing?” not out of interest but habit? It would have been better to simply say “Hello”, since you meant it as greeting and not as an invitation for discussion.   I agree that too much of our communication is reflexive and I feel that it is getting worse.


For the generation of my nieces and nephews, 'texting' is the primary means of communication.  I find it excruciating because you can't actually say anything.  It isn't uncommon for teens to have thousands of text messages per month and the overwhelming majority of them are devoid of substance.  They convey even less than the small talk that you get in person.  Communication seems to be shifting to more breadth but no depth.  Social networking sites like Facebook take this concept a little bit further.  You can have thousands of ‘friends’ but really you don’t know anything about any of them.   They are just something that you collect, like marbles or figurines.  Maybe my nieces and nephews will speak up and correct me on this point. 


It seems we have forgotten how to have meaningful discussion.  We don’t even try to be objective and separate ourselves from the ideas we are proposing.  An attack on our idea is viewed as an attack on us.  We have the compelling need to be “right”.   More often than not, I notice that people choose a side and THEN they look for evidence to support their side.  I can only surmise that this is the effect of having lived in tribal society for hundreds of thousands of years.  Our brain is conditioned to want to be part of a team.  Once you are on a team it becomes “Us vs. Them”.   If you have had any sort of conversation about politics or religion lately, it should be obvious that most people don’t arrive at their positions by critical thinking.  Instead they pick a side and then find evidence that supports it.  Sometimes the evidence that they dig up is so weak that it is laughable.  I have to be careful of deriding them because I do it myself.  I make every attempt not to but it requires effort, lots of effort, especially around election time.  To try to remain objective and unattached is something that has become foreign and I think it is killing intelligent discussion which is in turn killing our country.  


Having something more than a superficial conversation is hard.  It requires work, especially in light of my point above.  Who among us hasn’t had the time or energy to invite a friend over for dinner or to even give them a call?  We think of a million excuses not to do it or maybe we just don’t think about it at all.   I find it ironic that, in an attempt to conserve energy, we avoid doing things that could actually create energy.  A good example of this is exercise.  I never want to get up early and exercise.  It never gets easier to drag myself out of bed and do it, but once I am done I feel great.  I am so glad that I invested the energy. The same thing happens when I talk with a good friend.  I find myself energized afterwards and I wonder why I don’t do it more often.  I have noticed that there seems to be a minimum threshold of investment if you want an increased return.   You can’t just wave your arms in the air for a minute and call it exercise and expect to benefit from it.   You can’t just chit chat about the weather and expect to come away energized.  There is a commitment that has to be made.  This idea is the center of my thoughts and one that I find very interesting.


During the course of sorting out my thoughts to write this letter I experienced a phenomenon not all that unfamiliar.  While I would be juggling all these pieces and thoughts in my head I would be interrupted and all of the pieces would crash into a heap again.  A 30 second phone call sets me back 10 minutes or so as I try to resort through the pieces and figure out where I was.   This happens to me often when I am involved in a complex task that requires significant mental power.   I bring it up because I can’t help but notice the same thing happens when you are trying to have meaningful conversation.   You can’t just walk up to a friend and start a deep conversation.  It is something that you ease into.  Any distraction can break the mood or your train of thought and derail your journey.  That is what a really good discussion seems to be:  a journey of self discovery for both participants.  By having to explain yourself you are forced to bring coherency to your thoughts. How does the saying go? “If you really want to learn something, you have to teach it.”  Despite the energy it takes, a really good discussion is actually energizing.  It is as if at some point you pass that magic threshold and make a commitment to the conversation.  


Sarah and I took our 7th Honeymoon vacation to Pennsylvania and we briefly stayed in Lancaster County which is home to a very large Amish population.  I have been curious about the Amish so I checked out 3 good books and briefly studied their culture.   The Amish object to modern technology like electricity, phones and cars because they cause interruptions and interfere with that which is most important: relationships with family, friends and God.   They are very serious about the quality of their relationships and they have many rules designed to guard against dilution of them.   A phone call from a telemarketer is never going to be more important than family discussion.  A reality TV show will never take the place of activity in your community.  The Amish have purposely chosen to give up things so that they won’t be distracted from what is really important.   They realized that a 30 second interruption, at the wrong time, can do a great deal of damage.  They have made a commitment to a simple life.  This commitment appears to be popular because their community is growing rapidly.  The typical family has between 6-11 children. Around the age of 16 the children enter a period of Rumspringa (meaning running around) where the rules are relaxed for them and they are allowed to experience life outside the ways of the Amish.  It ends when they either take the oath to join the church/community and or leave it for good.  More than 90% of them choose to stay. 


So what is the difference between spending your time/energy and investing your time/energy? It seems to me one requires more of yourself…more of a commitment.  Watching TV, reading, small talk all require very little.  Writing a meaningful letter or visiting with a friend is actually an investment. I can’t be the only one that feels as if I am doing more spending than investing.  I don’t want to do that anymore.  I know less than half of you, half as well as I should like and I know half of you, less than half as much as you deserve.  (Borrowing a bit of cleverness from Bilbo Baggins)  I’d like to remedy that.  


Ten years ago, I spent the entire month of November in the hospital, the majority of the time in a fever while I was fighting an infection.  I lost 50 lbs that month and it was a dark and hazy time for me.   I remember many of you coming to visit me and I have never been able to sufficiently thank you for that.  You could have flopped down on the couch and watched “Friends” and it probably would have been more enjoyable than watching me lie in a hospital bed.  I don’t even know that I was capable of small talk or chit chat but just knowing that you were in the room and that you made the effort to be there was comforting.  Thank you!

Just this month two of my best friends had deaths in their family.  One lost a son and the other lost a father.   It started me thinking about my own mortality. I’ve never feared death.  What I really fear is getting to the end of my life and realizing that I never really lived. Realizing that I spent my time here instead of invested it.  To realize that you were never a friend a friend would like to have seems to me to be a fate worse than death.


So I come to the end of my letter with renewed enthusiasm to invest my time better:  to have more meaningful conversations and less trivial ones, to spend more time on the important things and less on urgent things.   Writing this has helped me clarify my thoughts and relearn things that I already knew.  Much like having a discussion with a friend or loved one. But as I finish, some small part of my brain is saying “Nobody cares about what you think.  Why are you wasting their time? ”. So before it builds up momentum and convinces me to delete this letter and watch Simpson’s reruns, I’m going to hit send.  I hope to see you over dinner very soon.






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