Silent Night

Last night my friend Dan took me to a New Year’s Eve get together around the block from my place in Brooklyn. There were eight of us, all of us between our late twenties and mid thirties. All of us, I’d hazard to guess, highly educated. All of us worldly and informed.
But I’ll be damned if there was one interesting conversation that came out of this congregation. There were no genuine reflections on the last ten years (it was New Years for 2010) or on the coming year or decade. There was a lot chatter about movies and trivia and, for a good deal of the time, about some court case involving one of the partygoers.
I’ve developed a number of mental tools to stave off extreme boredom in such cases. First and foremost, I try to steer the conversation toward a dialogue I think is interesting; discussing ideas that can be expanded upon—the nature of reality, what our actions represent from a global perspective, how we can evolve as a species—as opposed to the finitude of anecdotes and our little lab rat machinations; talking about Tiger Woods and eighties TV shows. It’s old fucking news man.
Barring successful maneuvering toward interesting conversation, I try to think about others, inquiring about their lives. I reason that the reason I’m so bored is that my needs are not being met, so it’d follow that I should forget about my need. This strategy rarely works. What do say to people who, who perhaps are concerned with a more macroscopic view of our planet and its inhabitants, are unwilling to talk about it. What do you do? I’m not there yet.
So my last tool is shutting down. I give a faint smile like I care about what’s being said, but ultimately I just try to endure the situation (this was made much harder by my lingering cold last night). I threw in a witticism every now and again to let people know I wasn’t hostile, but by the end of the night I was cooked.
Dan and I decided to take a walk around slush-covered Brooklyn. I didn’t want to seem ungracious for his invite to what might have otherwise been a solitary New Years Eve celebration for me, I did juxtapose the evening with a dinner party we’d had at my house a couple weeks back. There were six of us there—me, Dan and his girlfriend, Dan’s friend and artistic collaborator Jeff, and my friends Sem and Brian. After a few seconds of fluffy talk, we went straight to the jugular. Our first conversation concerned the meaning of a spiritual experience. We talked about the evolution of consciousness. We talked about how we see ourselves in the context of evolution.
It was a brilliant, albeit too rare an evening. For me, it set a benchmark about what conversation can mean: a rolling and building dialogue that fuses the collective knowledge and experiences of the conversationalists. It’s something that builds the breadth of its participants wisdom rather than maintaining it or diminishing it.
I asked Dan why that kind of interaction couldn’t happen more often.
Dan replied that when the gurus are in normal company, all they can say is, “Peace and love.” That they have nothing to say to the little plans of humans, embroiled in their self-import histrionics.
We talked about the barriers we have for developing these conversations, about fostering them with others, but also the need to protect them within ourselves—how retreating to spiritual and intellectual terra cognita is not always a bad idea; it enables us to fortify what is sacred in us and engage the world all the stronger. This in essence is the idea of retreat.
I talked about the main problem with humankind is its ability to sidestep consequences. We say a word or consume a product but we don’t look or hear their consequences. It’s not that the consequences aren’t present—it’s that we have so many distractions that allow us to look away from the consequences.
In keeping with this conversation, Dan made a suggestion as we approached the Brooklyn Bridge. He said we should walk silently to and from the first pylon.
As we transitioned from the stairs to the bridge’s walkway, we went quiet. The city didn’t go quiet—in fact the sound of the cars driving down the wet roads became more pronounced—but we did. I noticed my breath immediately. I looked over the lower Manhattan skyline. I looked through the planks of wood down to the street and then the East River. I looked at Dan. It as a great start of the New Year: embarking with him on the new conversation called silence.
And perhaps that is my problem: I don’t yet know how to be silent with people. Before we left the party on our walk, the host played a video of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawkings being edited and Autotuned (see above). One of the guys at the party recited every line of the video, which was a pretty esoteric discourse on physics and the nature of reality. It showed me that people are thinking these thoughts even when they seemed mired in the banality. Maybe my resolution this year is how to be with people such that they feel free to converse in such a way—openly, expansively, meaningfully. And perhaps the key is not disengagement, but conscious silence.

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