I'm Sorry, What?
Image by Simon from Pixabay

I'm Sorry, What?

Steve

Or, Finding awe even in the unfortunate

Sorry, I know I just said I wasn’t going to do this—and honestly, my heart is only half in it—but I have to rant for just a moment about something that recently happened here. It’s not about capitalism or food or trash (actually it kind of is about that last one), but the attitude of another American in Sicily, someone I actually felt naturally drawn to because of precisely that fact and so I feel somewhat justified in offering my ire some leash. 

The other day, while Franca was attending a standing-room only author event featuring a friend of ours, I walked down to a bar for a beer. There, I met a couple of friendly Sicilians (is there really any other kind?) who, once they knew me and my story, were interested in chatting about how we ended up here, about life in America and other topics of everyday nature. 

They were really enjoying the opportunity to use their English, as was I with speaking Italian. (A lot of my conversations go like that: I speak Italian, the other speaks English. In that way everyone’s learning!) When we visited America in May I struck many similar conversations with strangers—albeit in only one language—wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself, on a wide range of topics. The person seated next to me on the plane (travel and festivals), waiting on an Apple tech at the mall (jobs and technology), standing outside the changing room of a woman’s clothing shop (movies and Elton John). 

I really miss these kinds of spontaneous chats, especially with small acquaintances and strangers. They are harmless, usually. Just honest conversations with honest people about subjects on which we can find something to relate or would like to better understand. I had them all the time over the counter at our bakery with customers, and before that at the co-working facility I helped start, while volunteering, during travel, at conferences and special occasions, really just about anywhere. I like the way conversation unfolds, lightly, sometimes even in silence. 

I had not been at the bar long before Franca joined us and I introduced her to my new friends and the conversation continued. Eventually, a woman walked past outside pushing a stroller and one of them asked had we met her, this other American living in Troina. He stepped outside to invite her in and things were going smoothly—in the stroller was a small dog, which I immediately took a liking too—until about five minutes into the conversation, the lady, let’s call her Eris, brought up the G7 Summit happening then in Italy. Her exact words: I love Meloni because she’s against abortion.

Five minutes into meeting her and I looked over at Franca and we shared a look. We both know there are pretty much only two options when someone, especially someone you just met, brings something like this into the conversation. One, you can just let it go, knowing people are allowed their own opinions and for the pleasantry to continue you have to search elsewhere for common ground. Or Two, you can, in just a few words, help them understand whether you are or are not members of the same ideological camp. 

In his book, Supercommunicators, which tries to explain why conversation goes awry and what to do about it, Charles Duhigg writes that when we are having a discussion with someone there are actually three different conversations happening at the same time. One type is what he calls, What’s This Really About?, which is practical and oriented on decision-making. The second is emotional, How Do We Feel? And the third type of conversation is social and explores Who Are We? 

According to Duhigg, we move in and out of these three types as our dialogue unfolds. The trouble starts when we aren’t engaged in the same kind of conversation as the other person. “Our goal, for the most meaningful discussions, should be to have a ‘learning conversation.’ Specifically, we want to learn how the people around us see the world and help them to understand our perspectives in turn.”

I am against abortion, that’s what Eris is saying to me. So, which type of conversation is that? It certainly didn’t feel like a practical one. I never got the sense we were in some kind of mutual decision-making mode. She’d already had her mind made up about the topic: abortion was wrong. You will read in just a moment why I will go on and say the conversation she was having wasn’t emotional either. She only cared how I felt as long as I felt the same way. Which leaves us with Who Are We?  

As Duhigg quotes in his book, of the nineteenth-century thinker Pierre-Marc-Gaston de Lévis: “It is easier to judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” What I felt was contained in Eris’s comment on abortion was not the beginning of building a true connection—keep in mind, this all happened within the first five minutes of meeting her—but an end. And so what could I do but oblige her. 

I looked at Eris and said, We believe in the woman’s right to choose.

You believe in the woman’s right to murder a baby? 

Well, no, I answered, not that. Those are not the same the things.

Then she went on at some length to explain that she was a born-again Christian and that God made it clear in the bible he very much against murdering babies. 

I’m sure he did, I replied when she paused for a breath. 

Don’t you believe in God?

By this time, Franca had turned away and become engaged in different conversation happening with the others in the bar and so it just me and this woman, who apparently thought it a good time to bring up religion. Why was this happening, I thought. Was she trying to save time, perhaps, and just cut right to the chase, was I her people or not? Who Are We? Or maybe, she already had pegged me as a liberal and was clamoring for the kind of argument her conservative, traditional values had already established in her a degree of unearned confidence and therefore some invisible upper hand? I don’t really know, or care. Right after this she suggested I needed to show some humility in terms of my intolerance, which I am still trying to unpack as it was not I seeking to cast the spotlight on the differences between us. We both liked being in Sicily, let’s talk about that. 

But the question lingered in the air between us: Do you believe in God? 

Having the right conversation at the right moment is at the center of the supercommunicator argument. But Eris’s question and the look on her face: Well, I’m waiting, made me realize that this wasn’t actually a conversation at all, but a full scale assault of my character. She wasn’t seeking clarity. This wasn’t a deep question intended to bring us closer. She was seeking to divide us further. 

Now, normally, when asked this question, my preferred response goes something along the lines of this, the first line of the book, “Nothing to Be Frighted Of”, by Julian Barnes: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him”.

And it’s true. There was a time. But instead, probably to further distance myself from her and at the same time show some interest in moving on to another, less contentious topic, I simply shook my head no. (I clearly need to re-read Duhigg's book as I'm sure there was a better response I could've provided.)

You don’t believe in God? she exclaimed. You’re only the second person I’ve met who doesn’t believe in God. Eris is sixty-eight years old by the way. Live outside of a large town in New England. Pushes her tiny dog around in a baby stroller. I suggested she might need to get out of the house more often.

She went on to dive further into her faith, repeating her born-again status, and somehow fitting in that she has one daughter who died from a brain tumor, a son who will not speak to her and a husband who has no interest in following her to Sicily under any circumstances, even short-term ones. And yet, I am the one short on humility.

Do you know, she said to me, our founding fathers fought very hard for the right to our freedom of speech?

I do, I said uncertain where she might be heading with that, as she had just a moment before seemed ready to behead me for exercising that very same right over my position on abortion. Murdering babies? That is not someone seeking conversation. That is someone seeking a brawl. 

Have you ever served our country?

I have. I glanced over toward Franca. We both have. 

Did you serve in a war?

Yes.

Really? Which one? 

The Persian Gulf War.

Humph, she exclaimed. That was an easy one.

At that, I smiled and said, Lady, we are done here. 

And I was. I turned away just as Franca, who’d been following the conversation in bits and pieces, enough to know the spark it had ignited, stepped in to inform the woman—at the beseeching of a mutual friend there at the bar—that she needed to sort her household garbage correctly if she wanted the commune to pick it up. Eris had been getting warnings, apparently, but her lack of Italian prevented her from understanding them intelligibly (honestly, the rules are quite strict and unforgiving, so there's that). They then had a long chat about that at the end of which Eris thanked her and then approached me with an apology.

I’m sorry, she said. I love veterans and shouldn’t have said those things. It was very rude.

I agreed with her. But mostly, I agreed with her about Franca, who had the brilliance and ability to take what could’ve grown into a raging wildfire and reduce it to the size of a cozy campfire. Both Eris and I were grateful, of that I feel certain. Franca had saved us both from further discord (and, perhaps, more embarrassment for at least one of us...ahem), by taking the reins and orchestrating the right conversation for the right time. 

What’s This Really About? It’s about trash, that’s what, and about living in Sicily and not having it pile up in your house. Practical. Results-oriented. Rooted in genuine concern for the other party, which, really, I now realize, is just one more example of awe, after all.

So, in a way this wasn’t me actually venting at all. Just offering another example highlighting, in this case, the wonder of people all around us, people like Franca, who can build a sense of togetherness despite the many obstacles that stand in the way and can leave us dumbfounded and dazed, ready to subordinate reason to dogma, disinformation, blind faith, or trendy influences.

And that is a story worth sharing.

How to Show Love & Support

Behind my desk sits just me, unencumbered by shareholders or billionaire owners, trying to better measure what matters in life. If my writing here seems to be living up to those intentions or otherwise enriches your own life in any way, please consider supporting in one of these two ways: 

Invite a Friend: Share what you read here with others you know via email or wherever else you fancy spending your time online, every mention helps! Facebook, LinkedIn, X.

☯︎  Be Yin to My Yang: Most of what you'll read here is free, it's everything else that costs money. Become a paid subscriberfor as little as $5 per month, or make a one-time donation in any amount, to help me bring balance between the two. Keen on the Bitcoin? No problem. Shovel a bit (or two) my way: bc1qn56cg3htqq77zm4y06900m0u05xpy57zxkkmz9

Comments


} .footer-social-item-rss { display: none; }