I'm Curious

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Sometimes people complain to me that they find it difficult to have "important and meaningful conversations" as part of their normal, daily interactions with people. This often surprises me. I feel I manage to have important and meaningful conversations with Tom's five-year-old daughter (whom I'll call Princess, because she wants to be one), though they're of a very different nature from my conversations with Tom, which of course are among the most important and meaningful--not to mention entertaining and enlightened--conversations ANYONE could have.

Sure, there are conversations that bore me. I don't give a shit about football, for instance. I can talk about Barbies (I had plenty as a little girl) but I can't play them any more, not with my nieces, not with Princess–I can't become the consciousness that animates and moves a Barbie, which is what playing Barbies involves; I just can't make myself do it. And I don't pay much attention to the details of most people's jobs, since they're usually not interesting. Once I was talking to my mom about one of my oldest and dearest friends, and she asked what he did for a living. "He works in a bank," I said.

"Doing what?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said, shrugging in impatience. "Something with money."

Except for people who work in academia in the humanities or social sciences, so that I have a pretty clear grasp of what their jobs are like, I can't be bothered to remember most people's job descriptions, unless they're easy like "doctor" or "high school biology teacher," and even then I get sketchy on the details. But ask me about a traumatic breakup someone endured, or what religion they were raised and how they feel about it, or what their dietary quirks and preferences are, or when their birthday is and what their sun sign is, and chances are good I know.

I'm curious about what it feels like to be other people, and how we make sense of the workings of our minds. I ask what could be considered snoopy questions, but it's because I'm interested in the answers. And for whatever reason, people are usually pretty good about responding. They tell me stuff. I'm not just sitting at my computer blogging because I'm self-obsessed (though certainly that's part of it) but because I am interested in how we manage to communicate what it means to be US, our unique, individual, common, collective, human selves.

And it's one reason I love nonfiction. What does it feel like to be captured by Narragansett Indians and dragged around the vast and howling wilderness of a seventeenth-century New England winter, as we learn Mary Rowlandson was in Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson? What does it feel like to be a 21-year-old Marine private in the front lines of combat in the Pacific during World War II, a story E.B. Sledge relates in With the Old Breed? What does it feel like to be a Black Boy in the south in the 20s and 30s, as Richard Wright describes in his stunning memoir? What does it feel like to lose a third of your jaw to bone cancer when you're nine years old and spend the rest of your life dealing with profound questions of ugliness, shame and beauty, the story Lucy Grealy tells in Autobiography of a Face?

And what does it mean for the rest of us that these things are part of human experience? How do we make sense of the suffering, the joy, the humanity and the inhumanity of others?

Since I walk around thinking about these things a good deal of the time, I end up talking about these things a good deal of the time.

But the conversations that make me craziest, that I most want to avoid having ever again in my life, are arguments about religion. I love discussing religion; I HATE arguing about it. Almost nothing in the world interests me more than the question of how we rise above the defeats, defects and disappointments of our early religious training, to remain engaged in a search for the numinous, the transcendent, the divine, and committed to a quest for a spiritually inspired ethos of compassion and love.

But almost nothing in the world interests me less than trying to convince someone to join or leave a particular church. Having done my stint as a missionary, I cannot bear to listen to that kind of proselytizing, though somehow I got sucked into doing it again recently--"sucked" being the operative word, because that's what it did: IT SUCKED.

You can't bludgeon people--including yourself--into enlightenment, though god knows I've tried.

A few years ago I had a conversation with my mother that went like this:

Me: "I think the Mormon church is evil."

Mom: "It's not evil."

Me: "I think it is."

Mom: "It's not evil."

Me: "Mom, do you see how we're kind of at an impasse here? I'm not asking you to accept that it IS evil; I'm merely asking you to accept that I think it is."

Mom: "It's not evil."

This conversation reminded me that a frontal attack someone's most beloved institution is not particularly persuasive. I mean, yeah, I think that ultimately, the Mormon church sucks, and I'll be happy to provide anyone who asks with an entire catalogue of reasons as to why. But chances are, that won't be an especially meaningful or important conversation, because psychologically it's like kicking a miserable, skinny dog I've got chained up in some corner of my psyche; and politically it's like shooting rubber bands at an elephant's ass from a distance of 200 yards; and spiritually–-spiritually it's like drinking half a liter of Jack Daniels after someone really, really hurts you instead of just going to bed, so that you compound your original misery with a day or two of alcohol poisoning. (And yes, I've done that.)

I'd rather explore the range of possibilities I've got now that I've left the church. What gifts did the church give me? (And it did give me plenty, including an understanding of the art of exegesis and an ability to keep my cool in front of a very large audience.) How do I deal with the limitations it imposed on me? (There are plenty of those too.) How do I find compassion if not respect for those who are still dealing with those limitations--who, in fact, don't find them limiting at all?

That's a meaningful and important conversation I want to have both with myself and with other people. And I manage to have it, because I insist on it. If the people I'm talking to don't want to address questions like that, I leave them to discuss whatever they want, and I go talk to someone else.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 2, 2005 9:35 AM.

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