A number of people have mentioned to me recently how hard it has become to maintain relationships when friends and relatives don’t or no longer share religious or political viewpoints. This phenomenon has been especially pronounced this past month given the combined effect of the presidential election and Thanksgiving, when so many people renew their family bonds.
Two likely outcomes tend to occur in such social settings; neither of them is likely what Our Lord desires: we either shrink our network of relationships, withdrawing into the comfortable surroundings of like-minded people, or we engage only very superficially with these other-minded people because we either don’t want to deal with the likely conflicts, or we sense that deeper engagement may hurt our relationships.
The devil, I am almost sure, couldn’t be happier with either of these two types of responses. He’s always glad when fissures open up among God’s children. He’s also happy when we stay superficial in our relationships. This is so because if we were to dig for substance we might run into evidence of the substantial, the transcendent, or the supernatural, that is, the handiwork of God.
Our Lord, however, put us in the world to bring all souls to Him, not to shrink from social difficulty.
I’d like to suggest an alternative response: Engage smartly and actively in the rich middle ground of conversation before even this fertile ground becomes the new “no fly zone.” Make no mistake: conversational boundaries are on the move.
The main idea here is to learn how to converse adeptly in a set of topics (see suggested list below) in order to deepen, enliven, and broaden our friendships.
And it is through such conversations that we can actually love our family and friends generously and sincerely. Charity, of course, must always be the primary goal of all our actions.
Over time, your friends and relatives will grow to trust you even more, and they will see you as a level-headed, broad-minded person, a solid conversationalist. No yelling, no obvious tension, no direct conflict, just a calm and thoughtful friend capable of conversing on a wide range of rich topics.
With such a trusting friendship firmly in place, other even more substantial conversations can begin to occur, perhaps ones with a supernatural dimension. But we will leave that apostolic development up to the Holy Spirit; it will occur at His pace. But there is a high probability that these sorts of conversations will eventually occur. And we must be ready to help our friends through those topics too, generously and patiently.
In general these suggested “safe and substantial” topics share one or more characteristics: they point to beauty, truth, or goodness; they have long timelines or vantage points; they bear on the human virtues; they touch on ‘unities’ not divisions; and, they aren’t focused on the fleeting or the sensual (broadly defined). In short, they bring others in contact with the substantial or permanent things.
What sort of topics might be the focus of conversations in the days ahead? Consider the following areas of conversation:
- Beauty: art, music, architecture; activities involving design, a plan, order, and purpose.
- Creativity, invention, and innovation; interesting solutions that have been developed by others; solved problems.
- Work and hobbies, any activity involving considerable skill, self-mastery, craft, fortitude, perfection, exactitude, sacrifice, or any human task involving sustained effort or patience.
- Work methods, careers, good use of time, plans for new work, new enterprises and efforts.
- Vacations, culture, museum visits, and ancient histories; cultural articles or books you’ve read.
- Truth: logic, experiments, evidence, fact-finding, method, tests, contradictions, results from studies.
- Virtue (and vice): areas or events in life that demonstrate prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude; or, defects or weaknesses: pride, lust, anger, covetousness, gluttony, envy, and sloth.
- The common good: the great goods. Happiness vs. cheaper contentment; becoming our best selves, new beginnings.
- Death, loss of function, last struggles, meaning in life.
- Freedom, free will, or the exercise of the will; use of liberties, their priority or ordering.
- Honor, courage, acts of heroism, heroic virtue, duty, and responsibility.
- Service to others, volunteering, love, sacrifice.
- Wisdom gained, enduring observations about life and human nature.
- Events that have led to cheerfulness, joy; things to be grateful for; hope, acts of charity.
- Our own setbacks, struggles, and plans to improve.
- Topics to stay away from or to cover only quickly: emotions, feelings, gossip, complaint, weather, food, anything merely sense-oriented.
What sort of topics might be the focus of conversations in the days ahead? Let me know here, make a comment.