Conversation: The Making of our Minds
I have a dear friend. She is as close to me as a sister. She lives in another state, and we see each other when we can. And we talk on the phone at least every other day. When something good or bad drops into my lap (so to speak), or some interesting event surprises or shocks me, I think immediately, “I’ve got to tell Karen about this!” She is the sister I never had but always wanted. I have a dear friend. She is as close to me as a sister. She lives in another state, and we see each other when we can. And we talk on the phone at least every other day. When something good or bad drops into my lap (so to speak), or some interesting event surprises or shocks me, I think immediately, “I’ve got to tell Karen about this!” She is the sister I never had but always wanted.
I’m still making my way through Teilhard de Chardin’s letters to his cousin written from the battlefields of WWI–literally from the trenches as bullets and shells whizzed at times around his head, under circumstances that rarely occur in today’s long-distance warfare. I read two or three letters while I’m eating my breakfast (my best time for “spiritual” reading), and many passages speak directly to my heart.
And so last week, while reading these words, I wrote “Karen!” in the margin. Near the end of a letter dated January 22, 1916, he wrote: “Forgive me if I sound rather a bore today, abusing the kindness of a listener to talk interminably about selfish, hollow things. I felt this evening a need to drag my problems out into the open and see just where I stand; and so I have taken advantage of your indulgent friendship. You see how much I rely on you.” [emphasis added] Those words caused me to reflect again on not only my friendship with Karen, but also on the nature of conversation in the making of our minds. (A reminder: The title of this letter collection given by the translator is The Making of a Mind. Teilhard’s theology that he developed in the decades that unfolded after the war were seeded in this correspondence with his cousin.)
Some literary person of note once asked, “How do I know what I think until I write it?” We could just as well ask “How do I know what I think until I say it?” And these questions reflect a profound truth at base. As I discussed in my last two books, Imagination and the Journey of Faith and Flourishing Life, we create our meaning primarily in dialogue with another.
In his work The Phenomenology of Perception, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty makes clear that we complete our meaning by articulating what is intuited in our depths through conversation with another. Similarly, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s work, The Social Construction of Reality, makes the same basic point: meaning is created between us when we converse with a significant other. For example, although you can disagree about whether God exists or not with your barber or hairdresser, that conversation will barely make a dent in your thinking. However, you can have the same series of conversations with your spouse or significant other, and the impact of that dialogue will likely make a difference in your thinking and thus, your life–one way or another.
So as I have cautioned in my previous writing, beware of who you talk to. That isn’t as reactionary as it sounds. There are good philosophical and psychological reasons for picking your conversation partners carefully. Because the conversations you enter into will, in some significant fashion, sculpt your brain and shape your mind’s perception of reality.