A Long, Silent Conversation

I couldn’t help but enjoy the delicious irony of the situation. There I was a student of at least two languages other than English … who could barely manage a conversation in just her native tongue. But considering how long I’d been one of the game, it’s really a wonder why my social skills aren’t worse.

When most people engage in small talk – they have something to talk about. With my co-workers, it’s usually something – or nothing at all. But they’re pretty much on the same page and they swiftly shift subjects with smooth transition. That’s not really the case with me, I have to process what’s been said and evaluate my options – anything I say can be taken in any number of directions and I never want to divulge too much information.

I always remember that episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, the one where a genial host has invited the crew of the Enterprise down to the planet where he’s the Federation Ambassador while they have some down-time, completely unaware that the aliens who are hosting them have some plans of their own about what to do with their own spaceship. It’s made abundantly clear that everyone hates the host and finds him really annoying. So Data is told that if he wants to master small talk, he would do well to keep an eye on him. He does and copies him perfectly – learning how to talk about nothing at all. Later on, when the ruse is revealed, the aliens kill the annoying ambassador. Lesson: small talk gets you killed.

Half of the time, I wondered what I was going to say – eventually I realized I had silently rehearsed an entire conversation – the only thing I knew about the guy was that he was into music. I thought about asking: “What kind of music do you like most?” “Which genre is underappreciated?” “Can you think of a song that would be epic if it were written for a different genre?” Things like that – but … I didn’t say a word.

Most of the time when I work, I have little to say. I dread it when somebody asks me a direct question about myself because I hardly know what to answer. I think that’s partially because I’ve been so successful at being a whole other person sometimes. There’s the me that people meet, kind and friendly, they just like me – kind of a surface level reflection. But there’s the deeper me that’s harder to draw out, one that likes to keep something up my sleeve. This is the me that I don’t let people get to know easily and the me that has more interesting answers but might prove a bit intimidating in a sense.

Perhaps it’s all those years that Christianity drilled into me humility and dying to self that’s also a factor. You see, being able to talk about your accomplishments, how you can speak Spanish and read Portuguese can be understood to be prideful. You see, everything about you is supposed to point everyone you meet toward God – the less you can say about yourself, the more you can say about God. Or it was some idea that if we had to say anything, it should be important things that are necessary. Idle chatter just wasn’t becoming.

But small talk isn’t idle chatter, it’s creating an opening to turn an acquaintance into a friend, to make guests more comfortable in a strange environment, and it’s how you build relationships and trust. The church should put a particular emphasis on encouraging conversation rather than quashing it – and even though certain Bible verses say that some shouldn’t speak, we should question just how much that applies in a world where words have more impact now than ever before.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – it’s just that I don’t always know how to say it quite right.

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Fueling the Storm

Growing up in tornado alley, I learned that thunderstorms tend to build up because of instability and they only come to an end when that instability is gone. The more instability builds up – the worse the storm gets.

My nervousness problems work in much the same way. I realized that just last night when my co-worker realized I was nervous and something about the combination of what he said, the tone of his voice, and the gestures he made while speaking made my nerves spike. I had to stop and catch a deep breath to infuse my system with oxygen in order to try to calm down a little.

It reminded me of the time I was on a long flight by myself to a foreign country. The flight attendant was a friendly guy and quite a character, it it seemed the more he asked me if I wanted anything and double-checking my response: “Are you sure?” The more my nervousness would kick into high gear and the worse they got – making him ask all the more if there was anything he could do.

Truth be told, I didn’t really know I had that bad of a nervousness problem mostly because I’d never put myself into situations to test how I would respond. But now it seems with every new thing – they’re getting worse … and the more that people try to do to help, the worse it gets.

After Earth was actually a fairly helpful movie in that the concept of taking a knee was described. It means to center yourself in this present moment, to take a deep breath and let all of the things you can’t control slip away. To decide that the fear and worry you’re fighting aren’t real – well, they are real, but they’re aren’t your real concern in this particular circumstance.

I think – I also have to come to terms with that I put way too much pressure on myself not to make mistakes; drive the car the wrong way and you get in a crash and somebody dies. Make a bad mistake at work and you could lose your livelihood. Make this mistake or that mistake and your life could irrevocably be a downhill spiral ending in disaster. Better to not make mistakes –  but all the pressure feeds into the tendency to make mistakes.

“I remember your first week of working here.” A customer told me the other day; “I felt so sorry for you, you were so nervous I thought you were going to have a break down.”

“I know – it was pretty bad there for awhile, but I eventually found my zen.” I said.

It took time and experience to take care of my first round of nerves; and odds are that’s what it’ll take to get them to go away – but until then … anything anyone does to try to make them better will likely fuel the storm. The best way to put an end to my instability is to be stable and calm when I’m around.

(Does anyone know of any good calming apps? I tried one by the name of Calm and couldn’t really get it to work for me.)

Going Where I’m Needed

I’ve learned a lot this past year about myself, particularly that I enjoy making myself useful. When I was first hired on, I was told that there was always the possibility that I’d be sent to other places in the area to fill in where they had a need. As it turns out, I’m rather good at it. I’ve been sent to so many places I’ve lost count. I’ve worked in at least three counties. Even though it’s something of  hassle to go the distance, it feels rewarding to be helpful.

Then I think back to my days in church where I was primarily expected to do nothing. I was supposed to show up, stay quiet, listen, and leave. I couldn’t really do the sort of things that I wanted to – and what was left, well, they didn’t give me much training and I had to figure out what I could as I went along. It was in those areas that were out of sight and out of mind, and not only that, but not really interacting with others.

Not really interacting with others was something I’d done a lot of for a long time. I just thought I was bad with people. So this past week when a few different people admitted: “My kid really likes you.” or “I think you’re nice.” I wasn’t quite sure how to take that compliment other than to say, “Thanks, that means a lot.”

Even as my church would sing Audio Adrenaline’s “Hands and Feet”, “I want to be your hands, I want to be your feet, I’ll go where you send me, I’II go where you send me …” It was pretty much understood that this didn’t really apply to all of us. Sure, the big mission trip once every few years was the one chance that most of us would ever get to be sent somewhere we were needed. Sometimes it was in another country, sometimes it was somewhere in the states. But being what it was, it wasn’t something just everyone could do – only small teams could go and many would be excluded.

Perhaps a big difference is that each church is insular and doesn’t interact with local churches. They don’t talk to each other and say: “Hey, we could use some help. Can you send somebody?” The places where I work at – they’re connected together. The managers know each other and help each other. Their employees work together and build friendships even though it can be awhile until the next time they work together again – which is perfect because they can do a lot of catching up the next time they meet. Each church seems to be territorial and fears loosing people to another church or a different denomination. Looking back at my churches, they didn’t really interact with other area churches very often. I think once the youth group of a different church did an interpretive dance for our church – but I don’t think the idea went over too well because we never went to other churches or other churches after that came to ours.

Out of this week, I’ve spent (or will have spent) five days at other places than my own workplace … and I love it. I will have made myself useful by helping those who need a little assistance. I will have met a lot of new people – each with interesting stories and quirky personalities. I will have worked with all sorts of people, lifting their burden as much as I can. I’ll learn new tricks that make the job that much easier. Sometimes though, I just wish that Christianity was a little more like the world in this way – it’s not the most awful thing that they’d make it out to be.