My grandfather was a quiet man. I knew his history mostly through stories from my mother—his time in the Navy, his time raising hogs, his post-retirement career as a mailman. But I knew his nature from my time with him, silent though it was. I watched him in the garden, heard him humming along to the radio in his old truck. I walked with him by the swamps in South Georgia in the early morning, and listened to the birds with him. He named them by their calls: Finch. Warbler. Jay.
Were he alive today, he may not have known those calls. No need; there is certainly, somewhere, an app for that. For good or for ill, we live in an age of simplification. Technology has made connecting with other people around the globe as easy as a few taps on a screen, a few clicks of the keyboard. Simple tasks such as shopping have been automated; I have not set foot in a bank to deposit a check in years.
Although our technology frees up more time in our schedules, it increasingly fills those spaces even as it creates them. We can stream television shows whenever we desire—episode after episode, if we wish (and even, sometimes, when we don’t). The fallout of constant entertainment, even of the educational variety, is a lack of knowing. Not of head knowledge necessarily, but a neglecting of the places and people closest to us.
Our attention is a scarce resource. To attend to something, or someone, is not just to listen. It is to reach out for them, to seek to engage or understand or even touch; the root of attend is, in fact, to stretch toward. The danger of our current paradigm is that we are used to content—stories, music, images—reaching out to us. We forget that we are designed to reach, to engage, and to abide; and that these capacities atrophy as we fail to use them.
Conversation is more than speaking. It is a state of attending, of being in a place, among particular people, at a particular time. It is the act of choosing to be who you are, present where you are, when you are there. Words will come, will arrive as questions, stories, jokes. But the more we fill the silences with distractions—glances at our e-mail and Facebook, checking stocks or scores, playing games—the less those silences will serve a purpose. We must allow space for wandering, for awkwardness, instead of occupying ourselves with what is happening elsewhere.
We learn the work of peacemaking and of real engagement in conversation. We abide with others, hear their voices, see their faces. We sit with their stories and share ours, and so come to know complexity. Our God did not Skype in to the world; he came in the flesh. He walked and spoke and ate with his disciples. When Thomas, in his sorrow and his fear, looked upon the hands of Christ, he recognized them.
It is in the work, the discomfort, and the profound joy of conversation—of sharing our thoughts and ourselves—that we encounter one another. Not in our photos or blog posts, or texts. Let us learn to set our phones, our books, and our anxieties aside. There is a time for them. But if we learn to attend to and abide with one another, we shall learn to see through one another glimpses of goodness, truth, and beauty—and to exclaim along with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
This essay was written by Upper School New Testament teacher Brett Stonecipher. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The historic photos (above) are from the archives of the Presbyterian School for Christian Education, whose rich legacy began nearly one hundred years ago on the current campus of Veritas School in Northside Richmond.
Collage photo courtesy of Melissa Prior.