Monday, March 1, 2010

Sensational Shallowness and the Ongoing Conversation

by Troy Chapman

This week, two more guys from my floor go to the hole (i.e., segregation).

One man cheats another out of two bags of coffee.

Another is angry at his cellmate for making noise. Angry words are exchanged. Physical violence is averted but non-physical violence hangs in the silence between them as it hung in the nasty words spoken earlier.

Another man is sure there are rats and snitches plying their trade with impunity. The threat of violence lingers in his words as he talks about this possibility. Others think about the possibility of false accusations and start to monitor their own actions; they begin lashing out verbally at these unidentified traitors to send a message: “It’s not me.”

There are many ways to lose our lives, but to have them eaten up by meaningless manufactured dramas and false causes like these must be one of the most tragic. As serious as these examples sound, they are the prison version of 24-hour cable news coverage of Tiger Woods’ sex life or the political fights between liberals and conservatives. The prison version is magnified, but they’re really the same thing: pointless things occupying our consciousness as if they were life and death matters. Indeed, once we believe they are life and death matters, we turn them into exactly that. (And I use the word “occupy” in the military sense of seizing and possessing.)

Yet there’s an epidemic of this kind of dying in our culture. I understand it, as I am constantly being sucked into it here and am called to extricate myself again and again.

If we care about integrity, this is a skill we all must keep sharply honed — the ability to recognize sensational shallowness and maintain our depth. There’s some force in our culture that sucks us toward shallowness and makes us think that the most meaningless of things are of paramount importance. Since integrity is based on connection, this force is completely disintegrative.

Just being aware of the constant pull of this in our lives is a step toward freedom from it. Another is getting into what we in the Kinross Ethics Project call “the ongoing conversation.” The ongoing conversation is a lifestyle of dialog within ourselves, with others, and with life about living meaningfully. This kind of conversation runs counter to our culture so we have to constantly find creative ways to stay engaged in it, especially with those who are not consciously trying to do it. The most creative way I’ve found to do this is to keep the ongoing conversation question-based, that is, more about asking the right questions than finding or selling the right answers. Sometimes the right question is as simple as “Is this (whatever it might be) making my life more meaningful?” If it isn’t then we’re being sucked into the shallows again. Time to swim back toward the deeper waters.

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