The great painter, Agnes Martin, said music is the most elevated art form because of its power to move people. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Then came across this excerpt in the interesting, exciting recent issue of New York magazine. Billie holiday talking about her break in her own words nearly killed me. Destiny.
It seems incredible, but we have a problem of isolation on this crowded planet. More people report feeling lonely than ever before. In May 2013, The New Republic covered this “public health crisis”: one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago; and at any given time 30% of Americans don’t feel close to other people.
Not all people who claim to feel lonely are actually alone; many of them live busy, social lives. And for those who are isolated physically or geographically, the Internet can open up the world. We’re more connected than ever, but we’re not connecting.
There are many reasons for this, but one that interests me is the way we’re sacrificing the art of communication (verbal, gestural, energetic) for the language of technological efficiency. Speed is killing communion–a practice of sensitivity that requires time and space. Computers can read each other instantly; human beings cannot.
For the past couple of decades, we’ve been learning consciously and unconsciously how to manage the new reality of having the world’s information at our fingertips. Yes, of course it has expanded us–our minds, our horizons. But, it’s also contracted us: turning us into speed demons seeking answers and shutting out the possibility of anything unknown. We communicate like machines because we’ve adopted their language: searching for shortcuts, overriding anything that requires patience.
It may be worthwhile to review–for our tired, wired minds–what makes a successful human connection. I propose three critical factors: presence, spontaneity, and empathy. With them, communication ceases to be about rapid exchange and starts to serve something higher, and words carry meaning beyond mere information.
Presence is about focusing one’s attention. A present listener is not making mental to-do lists while he nods politely. A present speaker is considering her words and approach based on signals received from the listener. On a subtle level, presence is the ability to cease overlaying one’s personal prejudices, history, and expectations onto what’s happening, a habit that takes us out of the moment.
Recently, I heard Thomas Hübl, a teacher of Transparent Communication, describe the implicit pact you make with another when you engage in a meaningful conversation: “I will be here in this moment. However pleasant or unpleasant it is. I commit myself to being here…now…with you.” He says you can tell you are present when you find yourself saying things that surprise you. Which brings us to spontaneity.
Something is amiss when we have to contrive to insert more spontaneity into communication. It seems counterintuitive. But,it’s necessary in a culture driven as we are today by productivity. We seek control, build safeguards against surprises, plan for every scenario. In the race to the finish line of the conversation, we can demolish the potential for magic to happen. We stay in our heads and miss the chance to speak from the heart, the true source of unplanned and unbridled expression. In a technolinguistic culture such as ours is becoming, what’s more unsettling than a human being? A creature composed almost entirely of unknowns.
Spontaneity is our birthright, the thing that distinguishes us from the machines. As the dance teacher, Gabrielle Roth, used to say, “Between the head and the feet of any human being there are billions of miles of uncharted wilderness.” She also said, “The correct response when another human being is standing in front of you is fascination.” Think about that the next time you impatiently tolerate a coworker, sales person, or relative. How would the moment change if you decided to become fascinated by them?
Empathy in conversation happens when common ground is established. It’s hard to truly connect without it. According to the French philosopher, René Daumal, “Clear discourse presupposes three conditions: a speaker who knows what he wishes to say, a listener in a state of wakefulness, and a language common to both.”
He goes on to explain that the “language common to both” is not simply about grammar and syntax, but about the ability to establish a “shared experience.” In order to do this, we must be sensitive to others. We must be able to walk a mile in their shoes even if they feel uncomfortable. There has to be a natural curiosity, a willingness to explore together until we bump into the same signpost and say together, “A ha, I recognize this place.”
Presence. Spontaneity. Empathy. What I’m talking about may sound subtle, but it’s really critical. Words can unite or separate us. Conversations can connect or divide us. I attended a teaching by the Dalai Lama this summer. Among the many insightful things he said was this: “The 20th Century was a century of conflict. The 21st century will be a century of conversation.” If you believe this–and I do–then it follows that the quality of the century will be determined by the quality of our conversations. And not just those happening between heads of state in remote and exclusive enclaves, but the ones you and I have every day at work and at home. Each exchange is an opportunity to breathe life back into our words, to achieve the potential of communing in communication, which will remind us that not only are we not alone, we are in fact, one.
Last night the class at SVA’s DSI program was charmed and educated (in that order) by graffiti legend, James Top. This is a man who has stood on the third rail more than once, a fearless pioneer and the king of the IND and BMT train lines. I was struck especially by his passionate description of graffiti back in the day as “the voice of poverty, the voice of the oppressed, the voice of change…” Where are those voices today?
Thanks to my clients at Pure Branding for introducing me to this magical video. In classic Eames fashion, both the concept and the execution are startlingly simple, elegant and profound in equal measure.
Come see the work of the students in the DSI (Design for Social Innovation) program at SVA. I’ll be there. Some inspiration from the Indian Taittiriya Upanishad:
"Oh, wonderful! Oh, wonderful! Oh, wonderful!
I am food! I am food! I am food!
I am a food-eater! I am a food-eater! I am a food-eater!
He who knows this, has a brilliantly shining light.
Such is the mystic doctrine!
And anyone who withholds the food that he is from the world is a hoarder.
It is a question of yielding this body to the process.”
A wonderful parable for the eagerness that accompanies the early phases of change (esp. change for the better). A very good reminder here at the outset of a new year.
These guys–at the Atlantic Ave/Barclays stop in Brooklyn-have captured the rhythm of the city. It’s frantic, urgent, but measured, even, and totally working. Stop to dance, walk in time, or otherwise acknowledge that you’re feeling them, and you get radiant smiles and blessings. I picked up a CD and learned they’re called Underground Drum & Dance Ensemble. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Clear discourse presupposes three conditions: a speaker who knows what he wishes to say, a listener in a state of wakefulness, and a language common to both. But it is not enough for a language to be clear in the way an algebraic equation is clear. It must also have a real, not simply a possible, content. Before this happens, the participants must have, as a fourth element, a common experience of the thing which is spoken of. This common experience is the gold reserve that confers an exchange value on the currency which words are; without this reserve of shared experiences, all our pronouncements are checks drawn on insufficient funds…”
–Rene Daumal, Foreward to A Night of Serious Drinking
We are the ancestors of a future we can only pretend to understand now. What actions will you take? What foundations will you lay for a mythology that will sustain and nourish your great, great grandchildren. Will you be one of the heroes–known or unknown–who stand out for having understood something not about what is needed now (too late), but what will be needed soon?
Later, when the sound of your name rings clear and free of any earthly associations (ehem…flaws). One day when you are no longer a living memory for anyone, it will be your deeds that persist, that live on and cause ordinary and extraordinary people to wonder how you did it back then, way back, before anyone even knew how to do such things?
Think about your legacy. You have one whether you choose to own it or not. Live like every battle counts, because it does. That which is growing is living. That which is learning is thriving. Love yourself and love the fact that you mean something in your accidents and missteps as well as in your triumphs and glories.
Love beyond time and space; wrap your arms around that child hence who is unsure of her actions and whisper in her ear that she is indeed on the right track. You know this to be true because it is the one you laid. And it is leading us all home.
- “How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”— David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
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Here’s the full text of a piece I wrote for The Magazine a few months ago. I really enjoyed writing it, and would like to thank