My first date with my husband was what we now call our "acci-date," or accidental date. We had made plans to have lunch with a friend of mine, but she had to cancel at the last minute due to a "dental emergency" (really), so we went ahead with just the two of us. Despite the fact that my friend and her root canal sounded like a ruse I made up to get him alone, he wasn't too broken up about the impromptu change. Neither was I.
Throughout lunch I was amazed and moved by Jonathan's ability to ask good, rich questions and lead the conversation into meaningful territory. He did not regard our time together as a series of chances to establish his place and promote himself. Instead, he focused on really hearing me and making my words welcome and treasured. A year later we were celebrating one month of marriage. But his conversations reflect this self-giving nature with everyone, not just his wife.
Over the past eight years I have studied his ability to love people through other-centered conversation. It's not pretense: he does not manipulate people or try to impress them. It's not effortless: it takes intentional work to know people, because putting aside yourself and your own needs does not happen naturally. He does it to build real relationships that push back against the entropic isolation of life.
As a child and adolescent I was shy when talking with new people. I worried the whole time if they really wanted to talk with me, if I were interesting enough, if they liked me at all. It was all about me, and it was crippling. As I matured and began to know myself, I realized that people's acceptance of me didn't create or reveal my worth. My worth is permanently settled in my dignity as a human being. I also began to see that everyone feels insecure; everyone is hurting to some degree. We are all more fragile than we let on, and that makes people much less intimidating.
Most importantly, we all want to be known. It's how we were made; real relationship is like fresh air and pure water for us. It's where we are most alive. Genuine, enriching relationships are held aloft by vulnerability and trust, self-giving and trustworthiness, dignity and truth. We seek the ultimate good of the other person, believing that they will do the same, in a delicate dance of sacrificial love.
In practice it does not always look so lofty, and there must be grace after injury, and wisdom about when and with whom to be open: relationships are also where we are most vulnerable. Past or present pain can make being known feel terribly dangerous. If our main experience of closeness is a parody of relationship twisted by abuse or fear, then numbness and distance feel like wise choices. Personal connection can seem like nothing more than an "in" for those who want to use and discard us. This is not everyone's experience, but perhaps there is a hint of these feelings in all of us.
I was fortunate to have friends who persevered with me through my limited ability to let people into my life. They didn't condescend to me or try to "save" me; they wanted to love me and know me. And gradually, being known became more valuable and more delightful than being impenetrable and fierce. I felt more and more safe, so my previously frantic goal of safety became less and less insistent. It gave me a new-found freedom to extend my heart to others to know and be known. The more I was loved, the more I could love.
A while ago I met with someone for lunch, and I started by asking some questions to get to know her more. At first she answered each question with one or two words and then stared at me expectantly for the next one, while I sipped my drink slowly to give her time to reciprocate. After her first few stilted responses, I felt the old worry rise up in me: "Does she like me? Does she even want to be here? Does she wish I hadn't invited her?" Slowly she became more animated and I felt more confident of her interest. It showed me a stark picture of how my mindset had changed.
Instead of giving in to the idea that this awkward conversation meant she hated me, I allowed the possibility that maybe she was nervous or tired, or finds one-on-one conversation a little difficult. Instead of worrying about whether I should give up and get out of there, I stayed the course, trying to find what sparks her passion and give her the space to express what she wanted to express. And it worked. We had a meaningful discussion that I hope paves the way for further relationship.
Seeking other-centered conversation frees us to love others. If I am intent on truly knowing the other person, I am not worried about their reception of me. Self-forgetfulness gives me the courage to persevere even when I feel out of place; even if it feels awkward, it's an offering of love. And love can never be a waste.