New Yorker Cartoon by War and Peas (Elizabeth Pich and Jonathan Kunz)
My husband hears me talking on the phone, and standing at the threshold of my study, throws kisses. He says, with certainty, “You are talking to your boyfriend.” I laugh with embarrassment that he has caught me in the act of being happy. On the phone, a friend has just made it clear that he sees our friendship as important, and the reason he offers, in a most straightforward manner, is that it makes him happy to talk with me. I am touched, but also seriously bewildered that his desire for our friendship, means so much to him that it occasions this special call.
My husband admits, days later, that he was teasing me, and the kisses were because I sound happy for the first time in a longtime. He said that my mood is contagious, and it appears to restore the hope in him that I could be simply happy again. I muse, “Have I really been that unhappy?” “Who knew?”
Although bringing a certain pleasure, this sincere offer of friendship is also unsettling. How did my friend know for certain that conversations could make him happy, or more importantly understand that a friendship with me could have that impact? Can conversations make us happy, and if so, what is it that allows this to happen with some people and not with others?
Asking these questions to myself, jolts me into an awareness that I am beginning to feel like a visitor from another planet, an anthropologist from Mars, organizing facts to begin to understand what it means to be human. It appears I must have forgotten something basic. I am sure that I knew, at least part of the answer to these questions intuitively, and instinctively before, but the full organic understanding has now fallen away into the shadows. I am slowly coming to understand that these last few years have clouded, for me, the notion of what it is to be human, of friendship and what it means to simply talk with another human being.
Paula Marantz Cohen, in her book, The Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation, suggests that simply talking to each other freely, and without guile may help us out of what ails our troubled society. Perceptively rephrased, and enlarged by Hua Hsu in his review of Cohen’s book in the New Yorker, (“Good Talk” March 20, 2023), says, “Maybe because life moved at a slower pace and every interaction wasn’t so frightened with political meaning, we had the opportunity to recognize our full humanity. Nowadays, Cohen argues, we are sectarian and ‘self-soothing.’ Cohen suggests that we return to the basics: to brush up on the art of conversation.”
Does talking to others, and sharing our stories help us become more fully human? I find it hard to remember when I felt safe enough to allow myself to experience and share uncertainty with others, to dare to deviate from “group think,” and to struggle with paradox or ambiguity, in the face of the power of political polarization. Polarization always carries with it the serious danger of a possible hierarchical misstep, and the terror of social ostracization. Have I become a chameleon, changing colors to match the surround to avoid becoming a social outcast? This seems much more possible to me now, than it ever did before. Has fear of further isolation, dissipated what I once most deeply knew?
Cohen, describes true conversation as a kind of sanctuary, and I ask, “Is it still possible to create this safe space?” Pausing to recall, these cherished moments, products of conversations created in the safety zone that Cohen describes, I confess that I don’t recall the content of what was actually discussed. I only remember the experience of being in a moment, in time, when what has been asserted as the world order, morphs into something subversive inside of me, and the accepted social truths take on a new perspective, open now, to questioning.
I remember that moments before these conversations took hold of my psyche, I have a highly valued internal harmony and safety which holds me in a comforting and familiar nostalgia. Moments into these conversations, something that I can only describe as “happening” takes center stage with its bracing instability. Now, adrift in the wind between the imagined and the “real,” it is clear that I couldn’t have entered this territory alone.
What is clearly understood, or believed to be understood by me, appears in these conversations to re-surface as a newly formed unstable compound, a mixture of a newly known and unknown, both, oddly familiar and totally foreign. This newly created unstable compound also reveals a fragile moment of unanticipated personal risk.
It occurs to me that these kinds of conversations in the past, with their potential for internal transformation, have helped me piece together what it means to live in this world, to understand my own narratives, to distinguish it from others, to learn how to empathize and resonate with the rhythm of another’s life, and even to begin to value my own life. In short, it is in the temenos of the safe conversation, that I begin to understand how to love others and in time, myself.
How does one’s lexicon merge with and transform another’s giving each the strength to search out one’s own path, to value another’s path, and to no longer regurgitate the social proscribed truths, the easy “opiate of the masses”—an opiate that keeps us in lockstep, unthinkingly, reaffirming the truths of an often heartless world?
As I try to review, or describe what has happened in these ephemeral moments of conversation, as I try to understand what is not really understandable, it comes to me that what actually occurs is that two people simply have mustered the courage to talk with each other, heart to heart. The results can make history.
Joan Golden-Alexis, PhD is a clinical psychologist and Jungian Analyst practicing in New York city. She is the Director of Training of the Philadelphia Jung Institute. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.