08 May 2010

On questions, answers and conversation

There are more serious disappointments than failing a driver’s test, but for a sixteen year old, perhaps that is a hard fact to accept. Maybe it is because the license suggests some rite of passage, some movement from childhood to something beyond it. Clearly, she wouldn’t be an adult, but neither would she want to continue to be a child. Or maybe the license represents some possibility for freedom, which, of course, is not indistinct from the movement out of childhood.

Sometimes the pains of parenthood outweigh its joys. And sometimes I know the benefits of disappointment, but it doesn’t hurt any the less.

Somewhere in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson says that most conversation is an attempt to avoid a fight. At one time I thought I knew what that meant—but lately I discover not only don’t I understand Bateson’s statement, but that I am having trouble understanding the purpose of most conversation.

Oh, I am being only a bit facetious. I know why we talk—converse, that is, but perhaps I am wondering how the process works. Rather, how do I feel present in a conversation? And I’m thinking that perhaps my presence occurs with the question: not ‘how are you,’ but ‘did you think of anything on down the line.” I borrow that line from Arlo, but it has stuck with me for many, many years now. The question opens the space for talk. The questions opens. And any response is legitimate for the questions any response that takes the questions seriously. As expressing real interest.

Thoreau says that he had three chairs in his cabin: one for solitude, two for company and three for society. Any intimacy in conversation probably would refuse more chairs. Conversation is for thinking, and so Thoreau says, sometimes he and his companion would move their hairs to opposite sides of the cabin in order to make room for their sentences to expand.

So maybe what Bateson referred to is the inability of too many to accept ambiguity and doubt—the prerequisite of the question. And therefore, to insist on primacy of the answer which leaves no space for the question.

How are you might be a real question, but too often lacks legitimacy? But did you think of anything on down the line requires thought and patience and demands conversation.


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