Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Sacred Space of Meaningful Conversation

I notice that people here tend to speak rather slowly, as if they are in no hurry at all and as if they are offering each word as a fresh utterance, a fresh composition. It is so charmingly different to the well-oiled, automated delivery of cliched scripts that I have become accustomed to in Brisbane - tired, old, uninspiring scripts that recycle stale energy, their originality used up a long, long time ago.

Worse yet, these lifeless, conversational detritus are frequently scattered in company to avoid silence, a state apparently so threatening and uncomfortable, it has to be filled with non-creative dialogue:

How are you?

Pretty good, thanks. Yourself.

Yeah, not too bad. Could be worse.

Hot enough for you?

Yeah, it's been shockin'

I had to shower twice this morning. Cold shower.

Me too. They say its gonna stay like this for the rest of the week...

And so it goes. Or does it? And if so, where?

Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
Oscar Wilde at

On the other hand, I was drawn into a different kind of conversation last night, just as we were about to tuck into our 'steam boat'*.

What is the difference between liturgy and ritual?

The five of us at the table remained silent as we pondered the question. After at least a minute, one offered an answer.

Rituals are like habits with certain connotations. Right? But liturgy is...

Someone else sought to fill in the blanks...but stopped.

I acknowledged the first response regarding rituals and waited to see who else might respond. Soon, however, the immediate demands of the steamboat 'ritual' distracted us, or should I say, drew us back to the purpose of our gathering.

I continued to ponder the difference between liturgy and ritual and felt almost ready to offer my answer. Sensing, however, that the timing was not quite right, I refrained and instead allowed my attention to be absorbed by the joyous process of 'trawling' (with a strainer-ladle) freshly cooked assortments of seafood from the cheerfully steaming 'boat' in the center of our table.

The conversation gradually meandered towards apparent paradoxes in the Bible and then onto local politics. No surprise at all as I have long been aware of Malaysians' fondness (or is it an addiction?) for two subjects - religion and politics.

And so our dining, interspersed with periods of silence, progressed to a happy, open-ended closure. Had you been there, you would not have complained of verbosity. You might have been intimidated by the silences though. But, if you were sensitive enough, you would have felt the unspoken respect and care that held us all in the sacred space of meaningful conversation.

Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.
Robert Benchley

*In case you're wondering what that is, it comprises a small gas-fueled wok in which a tasty soup is kept boiling and into which you drop all manner of tasty meat and vegetable bits to cook. As they do, you dish them out into your bowl and consume. Our steam boat last night was a seafood affair. Most delicious :-).


  1. Two wonderful and appropriate quotes - and I love your paradoxical "open-ended closure" - no doubt because of a mutual understanding and acceptance that such a thing is perfectly possible - good company.

    When we meet each other in the stairwell, or on the landings of our lives - busily in transit - each on our own missions of urgency - it is all too easy to find yourself caught in the cleft stick of silence (which might be construed as rudeness) or smalltalk.
    But why the weather? Always the weather - it's quite comical - yet I find myself doing it - the weather - as if that was all that we have in common - yet guaranteed to be inoffensive, impersonal & blameless - and it's always there - the weather. Perhaps we get in to the habit because it can always be relied on.
    I never really bother about the weather for myself - why does it suddenly insinuate itself into conversation - it's a mockery - yes - it degrades the art of conversation.
    Mind you - it has temporarily been deposed - by the Olympics.

  2. Gorgeous comment! The smile is still on my face :-)

    Like anything else, I think that what we choose (or use when it is automated rather than consciously chosen) as material for 'conversation' is often a means of expressing certain feelings that we are unable or unwilling to express more directly.

    The weather provides a convenient (and as you say, inoffensive) subject for expressing the feelings of irritation, fear/dread, hope etc. In other words, it allows us to move some of the energy that has built up inside us just a tad.

    But how inefficient especially if employed repeatedly and mindlessly! Which is why such 'conversations' often leave us unsatisfied. Yet, move a little deeper or further away from that stairwell, or choose to communicate wordlessly, and the outcome can be so much more satisfying.

    Look, for instance, into the eyes of the one standing on the landing with you and you are both immediately transported to the open fields of intimacy! Open because you are free to come and go as you please, neither bound nor rejected!