Radio personality Celeste Headlee describes a jarring conversation. Years ago her good friend had lost her dad. She found her alone on a bench, distraught, tearfully staring at the horizon. Unsure of what to say, Celeste starting talking about how she grew up without a father. He had died when she was just nine months old. She wanted her friend to know she wasn’t alone, that she knew how it felt.
“Okay, Celeste, you win” her friend snapped. “You never had a dad and I at least got to spend thirty years with mine. You had it worse. I guess I shouldn’t be so upset.” Mortified, Celeste tried to convey how badly she had misspoken. “No, no. I just meant I know how you feel”. Standing up to walk away, her friend said, “No, Celeste, you have no idea how I feel.”
What one sociologist calls ‘conversational narcissism’, turning a conversation back to you, happens a lot. We all do it. When we’re uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, we move to a subject which we know a lot about: ourselves. But good conversations involve taking turns. Instead of responding to a burdened colleague who says, “I’m feeling overwhelmed” with “Me too, I’m totally exhausted.” Consider a more supportive reply, “It sounds like you’re going through a really hard time.”
Giving someone else a turn is only one way communication falters. In this week’s portion of Torah we learn about the original collapse of communication. At the Tower of Babel, humankind seeks its own ascension. “Let’s make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). God’s interdiction follows. Languages are scrambled so that people become incomprehensible to each other.
The Torah then shifts ‘making a name great’ away from ourselves. God will do it for Abraham. We, in turn, will do it for God. Every time we pray the Kaddish, this is literally what we are praying to achieve: “Magnified and sanctified is God’s great name”.
When we’re inside our own heads too much, we often feel melancholy. Social Scientist Arthur Brooks has recently pointed out why spirituality tends to lift us emotionally: “it makes you not think about you”.
To be clear, there are times when it’s important to bring our story into someone else’s. Personal sharing can deepen intimacy and feel truly precious. In the two months since my dad died, I have dearly appreciated heartfelt sentiments from so many which have supported me.
As we pay attention to those outside of ourselves, may we take turns in ways that elevate the spirits of others while ventilating our own.