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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, February 02, 2014

On Chitchat

For much of the past few weeks, with snow and cold weather around NC, I have kept to myself.  The solitude has been comfortable. I have been able to concentrate on some reading when I can settle down to do it.  I have followed through on some of the assignments I need to do at work.  I've stayed up with my classes and made appropriate reminders to keep students on pace.  I've come up with new ways to teach subject matter for my standard courses.  I've thought about and tried to keep up with family matters.  I've missed my Everly and teared up as the moments demand.

But I must admit that I have felt guilty a few times about the self-imposed solitude.  I have many friends who would be glad to sit down at coffee or lunch to visit, and I don't mean to be unappreciative of their friendliness.  I've never been very good at chitchat, and in the past few weeks I think I have been avoiding it.

I don't mean that I have not conversed with people--friends and coworkers alike.  But most of those talks have been pretty intense, and several have gone on for a couple of hours and more.  The thoughts that are on my mind tend to spin powerfully toward big questions.  Some of it is about how I will discern the next steps in my life now that Everly's work and comfort are no longer part of how I think about the shape of my life.  Some of it is about grieving Everly and the everyday pain that missing her brings. 

I think that one reason chitchat is not very easy for me right now is that for so many years it was something I did with Everly.  She learned quickly that I was not a great casual conversationalist.  On her own, she was often the life of the party, talking, joking, teasing, and acting silly for everyone's entertainment.  With me, she was gifted in bringing out my words and good humor.  She could get me started talking.  She could help me find the people in the group who might be interested in whatever obscure or heavy topics I had on my mind at the time.  And around the house, we would deal with our everyday chitchat topics intermingled with long bouts of listening to serious and intense matters we were thinking about in our work and vocations.  In consequence, easing into a friendly chitchat at this time in my life is also opening a window on my grief over losing those daily conversations.  I know that is not a very good reason to avoid my friends, and now that I'm thinking this through, maybe I can be more ready to face it.

I also don't want to diminish the significance and good that comes from chitchat.  There are many ways of smoothing the path of getting along with people, of greasing the rails toward building relationships.  Friendly chitchat is one very important one.  Laughing together is another.  For those of you who follow research on human behavior, it is not news to find out that about 90% of our laughter has little or nothing to do with humor.  It is a communicative behavior that breaks psychological barriers between people.  It smooths the edges of getting to know people.  We laugh when nervous and it dispels some of the anxiety.  We laugh simply to fill space when we are not sure what to say, and everyone gets a little emotional relief. 

Unlike the nonverbal communication of laughter, friendly chitchat shares intellectual content that helps people to become aware of who we are and to gain a sense of our assessment of them.  The verbal is mingled with body language that may convey a great deal.  Do we seem to like them?  Do our stories convey that we feel superior or inferior to them?  Much is transacted in chitchat that verbally and non-verbally shapes how people will understand their relationships.

Aristotle's list of virtues in The Nichomachean Ethics includes one that is often translated "wittiness."  It is the virtue of being able to carry on pleasant conversation, to speak tactfully, to tell proper humorous stories in a proper manner.  It is contrasted with boorishness and buffoonery as its deficiency and excess.  To be able to make others comfortable in conversation, to treat them well, even to entertain them, is a virtue for Aristotle's well-heeled Athenian male.  I think it is not hard for us to see the value of excellence in chitchat. 

We all have observed those persons in a group around which others gather to listen intently, giggle and laugh, and generally enjoy themselves.  Maybe others of you, as I have at times, have jealously wished to be that person.  That feeling itself may help us recognize the good in having ready wit.  It may not be, as some would criticize, one of the most important virtues of a moral life.  Yet it does not, on the other hand, appear to be a vice, nor even something not worth the trouble of developing as a habit.

I have probably become more habituated in "wittiness" over the years, largely because of knowing Everly.  She might not have thought of herself as having this virtue because Everly sometimes underestimated her strengths as a person.  But I do think she would agree that our partnership had benefited me a great deal in this aspect of living.  From her I learned to be more aware of the people with whom I am conversing rather than tightly closed up in my head with the matters on my mind.  From her I learned to be a better listener and not use others' words as a jumping off point for what I wanted to say anyway.  From her I learned to enjoy people for the good they are bringing to my life and the lives of others.  I don't mean that I've learned to be as she was, but I have loved who she was and embraced the glimpse of seeing the world as she saw it.

My mix of intellectual overconfidence and social shyness found a fascinating and intriguing partner in Everly's gregarious way of making friends, her quick intellect, and her impatience with abstraction.  We also found in one another traits we shared and valued: devotion to God, moral intensity, and a drive to make a difference in the world.  Hanging out with that person:  that's my chitchat heritage.  I miss it.  But I look forward to many more coffee and kitchen and hallway conversations with the rest of you.  Y'all all know you are not Everly, and you were not trying to be her.  Now I need to pay attention to who you are, listen to what you have to say, and offer the wit I can bring to the moments we have to find some joy together in this life.
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