A wonderfully erudite, delicious man and theologian named Allen Hilton (author of House United), whom we know and revere, travels the country giving seminars to various congregations on how to engage in what he calls “Courageous Conversations.” Adjusting to the Covid pandemic crisis, Allen has maintained his connection through Zoom and writing daily devotionals, which help guide many of us through these still difficult days.
Luckily, prior to Covid, our church invited Allen to conduct two weekend seminars. He was an inspiration to those of us gathered in our fellowship hall as we listened to his philosophy: no matter how different people are politically, economically or socially, Allen’s message is that it is possible to know each other through engaging in “Courageous Conversations.”
One exercise was to pair up with a person one hardly knew, of a different generation. Two different experiences for me (one with young thirty-something Nate and the other with early fifties Brian) created meaningful sharing of backgrounds, interests, concerns, and beliefs.
The purpose of these conversations was to “interview” each other as we learned about his or her past history and special experiences. Each person could speak uninterrupted for five minutes. Nate shared with me that as a Korean child adopted by New Jersey parents, he faced many challenges during his earliest years. Now married to a Caucasian lawyer, the mother of his baby girl, Nate admitted how it felt to be a minority. He touched my heart as he delved into various aspects of his life. Amazing how much can be learned, even in a short time, if we just listen!
Brian, with whom I served as an Elder on the Session, grew up in Alabama, where we, too, spent three happy years during my husband’s corporate career. I learned from both men that as different as we might be politically, we shared common values: belief in God, family and the Golden Rule. These steered us to a common denominator for good conversation. Yes, although I was 50 and 30 years older than these young men, we bonded. We were able to see each other as real people in spite of generational gaps. We saw the benefits of engaging in genuine one-on-one communication with a virtual stranger.
It is common knowledge that during the past year one of the worst things about the Covid pandemic has been prolonged isolation: physical separation from dear family and friends for health safety’s sake. For months, loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals were forbidden to see each other. No wonder so many people died. No wonder therapists now work overtime to treat depressed patients, unable to bounce back from the debilitating hardships of quarantine. To me those who have been MOST severely affected are the elderly who are living alone and the preteens who have been forced to learn online rather than go to recess with their little friends. So unnatural.
Recently two good gal pals and I shared our first long lingering lunch in thirteen months. Being thoroughly vaccinated we hugged each other goodbye, and Sally said, “Oh, how I have missed hugging.” And she was right. She is a widow, and her adult children and grandchildren are scattered just as ours are…so although I can ask my hubby for a hug, Sally cannot reach out for her man. Human touch assures comfort. We have taken it for granted, until this past year.
A thought to ponder. Could it be that we have become a more fractured, angry country due to Covid’s enforced separation from those we love? Perhaps resentment has usurped common sense and clear thinking.
But let’s move on to other random reasons for Courageous Conversations. The first one is the high number of divorces in our country. A Google search reports that “48 percent of those who marry before age 18 are likely to divorce within ten years compared to 25 percent of those who marry after age 25. Sixty percent of couples married between ages 20 and 25 will also end in divorce.” How sad, but hardly surprising. In addition: “50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. Sixty percent of second marriages, and 73 percent of third marriages end in divorce. The two most precarious times occur between one and two years and five and eight years.” Sobering statistics.
Wouldn’t it make sense if we could spread the word through our schools, colleges and churches that marriage is absolutely not to be “entered into lightly?” Experience plus maturity help determine the right partner to choose. Shared values rank high….and I believe every young engaged couple should have premarital counseling. Even back in the dark ages when my husband and I were married at ghastly young ages, we were required to spend several sessions with our minister before he would agree to marry us.
The Fifties were far different than now. Life was simpler in that we had fewer gadgets. No internet, cell phone, computer to distract us. We went to school, we followed rules of behavior. We lived through WWII, and I believe we became more responsible sooner. And together we learned by trying harder. We talked to each other and slowly we grew up: we were committed to marriage. Failure was not an option, even during rough patches. For John and me having four children together was binding epoxy glue. We weathered storms and grew closer.
When we learn of young children as innocent victims of a broken union, our hearts ache. One of our two great grandchildren was the product of a brief marriage between two young college students, yet to graduate. These young people had a beautiful baby boy before they even knew each other or sorted out their goals and beliefs. Tragic that “Courageous Conversations” never happened. One can only hope and pray that time will heal all those involved.
Another “Courageous Conversation “is essential when life altering health events affect elderly people. And from recent first-hand experience, I can attest to the heartbreaking aspects of accepting unavoidable advice and action. But to listen is to learn whether we want to or not. And tough conversations usually lead to positive moves. Or at least that is what I hope happens. And one day soon I will feel secure enough to write about such a personal “Courageous Conversation”…life altering but essential.
Reflecting upon the reason for this article makes me know that as a significantly senior citizen, I hope that as long as I live, I will keep learning new and better ways of being a person who when the time comes to meet St. Peter at the Gates can look back on her life and say, “Yes, I did my very best….I didn’t always do it right and for sure I made many mistakes for which I apologize. Yet I kept trying to learn. I did not shut my eyes or ears to honest efforts to be more giving and understanding, always moving forward.”
And one trick will be to keep following Allen Hilton’s tips for “Courageous Conversations.” Expect discomfort, but practice patience and hopefully positive results will flow….with time and effort. After all, isn’t this what we all want in our world? Isn’t it what we want so that problems like racial, political and societal differences can be eased and people can see each other through clear lenses? It may take years, but let’s start, one day at a time, one person at a time.
For those of you who may have heard tunes from one of 1940ties Broadway’s smash hit musicals, you may remember South Pacific and Mary Martin singing “Cockeyed Optimist”:
“I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we’re done and we might as well be dead.
But I’m only a cockeyed optimist
And I can’t get it into my head.”
Top photo: Bigstock