Stop Talking About That
Disclaimer: This article isn't actually about COVID-19 at all.
I spend a lot of time on the phone these days. Sometimes I'm calling up a friend to check in, or ringing a family member to catch up. Other times, I'm calling someone to discuss things related to our mission here at Chapter of the Day.
And now, inevitably, I cannot make it through a phone call longer than fifteen minutes without discussing the Coronavirus pandemic. This trend isn't surprising--COVID-19 is something we are all responding to, so it's natural that it'd be a common subject.
But about a week ago, I noticed something: The conversation around COVID-19 was always the same. Depending on who I was talking to, there would be a sort of liturgy shaping how the discussion went. In conversations with one person, I could always expect to rehearse the dynamic of public safety and economic necessity centered around the lockdown. With another friend the conversation was spiritual, revolving around how we as Christians are now prohibited from attending one of our faith's most ancient rituals. On another phone call to a different friend, the conversation would inevitably move towards the difficulties of living in social and emotional isolation.
And I found that whenever I hung up, I hated that this was the last thing we had spoken about. I began to resent the world for ruining my ability to converse in a normal and pleasant fashion with those I cared about. I began contemplating how to work around this annoying but seemingly inevitable issue.
But contemplation is a dangerous thing. Soon, I began to realize the problem was COVID-19 at all. The problem was within me. My words were broken.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote a poem to the following effect:
Watch your thoughts, they become your words.
Watch your words, they become your actions.
Watch your actions, they become your habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
The issue of repetition had nothing to do with COVID-19. We repeat ourselves and our conversations constantly. I had only noticed because now I was repeating something new, something which everyone I spoke with had cause to repeat as well.
This repetition isn't a bad thing, so far as I can tell, as much as it is a way of life. If we could do as Lao Tzu wrote and examine our thoughts continually, we would find our lives much improved. Most of us, however, are not very adept at this (I certainly am not). To compensate, we share our mental processing power with others in our communities, vocalizing our thoughts and getting feedback on them.
Over the past week, I've attempted to pause and reflect after speaking with others, trying to notice the things I find myself repeating. Some were very encouraging--I found, for instance, that I almost never end a phone call with a friend without telling them that I love them. At the same time, however, I discovered a number of deeply troubling repetitive phrases arising as well: "Umm, okay." A sort of casual dismissal of the other person's ideas or questions.
"I'm doing great." A vague, unhelpful statement that tells the other conversant that the conversation needs to stay surface level, free from any genuine revelation.
"I can't do _____ because of ______." A sentence that paints a picture of a reality wherein I am incapable of accomplishing things. A simple addition of the word feel can do a great deal to change this sentence. Feelings can be very different from reality.
As I began to identify these troubling repetitions--as well as other, more lengthy topics of conversation--I realized that very many of them did nothing at all to help me. Often times, in fact, they were actively harming either me or my relationship to the other speaker. My words were prophesies, inviting others to a future neither they nor I would want to inhabit.
But if ill-devised words can lead to a harmful future, then the right sort of words could lead to a future at least as good as the present moment--and quite possibly even better.
Stop saying that. Say something meaningful instead.