I’ve missed nothing more in the last month than having conversations. And by that, I don’t just mean the deep meaningful ones, I also count the two minute chat at the counter as I order coffee or the five minutes with a trainer before a gym class begins. I used to disdain these encounters as small talk, but I have learned in recent years to use every opportunity to make them more meaningful. So I try to remember to ask the barista about how her boyfriend’s play is going or a fellow writer in one of my gym classes if he’s had any interesting projects of late. I enjoy any opportunity to turn the focus of conversation away from myself.
Living in forced seclusion has put the focus back on me, both in what I write here and what I can freely talk about. I feel like I engage in therapy mostly just to have someone to talk to who might have a different point of view about what I’m thinking. That at least makes all of the focus on me palatable. This past week, I have been interviewing therapists, which feels like endless rounds of repetitive “who I am” storytelling. I finally began with a new therapist full time today. I have been doing so much monologuing about me lately that I just threw out normally traumatic tales as if I were describing my breakfast routine. Maybe it’s a good thing. As Montaigne wrote
You never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are.
Montaigne may have retreated to a life of solitude, but he never lost his love for lively talk:
To my taste the most fruitful and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives.
It can be. Honestly, I find that most of my conversations these days are done over text and I’m getting a little tired of it. I miss hearing voices and noticing how body language and words can misalign. I am not a speechwriter and trainer for nothing — I revel in the spoken words. Although, I must admit, I have become more hesitant as I age to engage in thorny discussions. For Montaigne, these were the conversations most worthy of our time:
In conversation the most painful quality is perfect harmony.
I would contend that perfect harmony is impossible in any conversation. Even someone trying his or her best to agree completely is usually having an internal debate about comportment and authenticity that is sure to come out in style or tone. I find this tendency towards collusion and placation the most difficult part of conversation, both in others and myself. But like most people, I dislike the open combat of difficult conversations
So contradictory judgements neither offend me nor irritate me: they merely wake me up and provide me with exercise. We avoid being corrected: we ought to come forward and accept it, especially when it comes from conversation not a lecture. Whenever we meet opposition, we do not look to see if it is just but how we can get out of it, rightly or wrongly. Instead of welcoming arms we stretch out our claws.
This is an interesting statement from Montaigne because at first it makes him seem superior to most of us, but dig into it a bit and you can see his own internal struggle that makes it revealing. In the abstract, sure, it’s a great thing to be awoken to errant judgments. I often find myself hours or days after a lively discussion changing my mind on a subject when I have time to fully absorb the discussion and consider the opposing point of view. But this rarely happens in the heat of the discussion precisely for the two reasons Montaigne raises here: strong oppositional ideas can often come across as lectures and a heated debate can easily lead to claws coming out.
I do not know whether I gravitated towards debate in high school and college as a way to rationalize the regular arguments of my parents from childhood or if debate was a continuation of the oral combat style. I do know that I developed in my teen years a vicious style of verbal attack that won me many debate rounds and tended to scare away people from entering into battles with me. The older I get, the more it all seems maladaptive and my more conciliatory speechwriting persona has certainly become dominant. Montaigne would agree that this is progress:
In debating we are taught merely how to refute arguments; the result of each side’s refuting the other is that the fruit of our debates is the destruction and annihilation of the truth. That is why Plato in his Republic prohibits that exercise to ill-endowed minds not suited to it.
Montaigne believes that conversation is a better salve for conflicts because it forces equality between people. They have to agree to meet each other on a common level so that they can describe the differences between their worlds and points of view. This helps allay what is potentially the most dangerous impulse we have towards other people — projection.
Our eyes see nothing behind us. A hundred times a day when we go mocking our neighbor we are really mocking ourselves; we abominate in others those faults which are most manifestly our own, and, with a miraculous lack of shame and perspicacity, are astonished by them.
What I find especially fascinating in Montaigne’s view of conversation, however, is the way he sees even this projection as a potential source of self insight, if we able to depersonalize the dispute and see how the other person in the conversation is providing a gift of self discovery:
When our judgement brings a charge against another man over a matter then in question, it must not exempt us from an internal judicial inquiry. It is a work of charity for a man who is unable to weed out a defect in himself to try, nevertheless, to weed it out in another in whom the seedling may be less malignant and stubborn.
This, to me, makes a really strong case for voicing any dispute you might have with another, not to punish the person who made the supposed transgression, but to examine whether you personally might be responsible for a similar act in another instance and could possible learn from seeing the transgression in another context. In other words, the education that takes place in charging another with a violation is yours, because it allows you to empathize with the transgressor and feel the pain you may have caused, even trivially, in others you may have harmed.
In the end, it is flexibility that brings us the greatest opportunity to reach others and to be influenced by them. It is fine to state opinions and feelings strongly and even to become heated when making your point. But ultimately, there is no point entering a conversation if you prejudge your ability to be influenced by it:
The surest proof of animal-stupidity is ardent obstinacy of opinion. Is there anything more certain, decided, disdainful, contemplative, grave and serious, than a donkey?