I often meet my friends and family in loud and crowded places. We go to the coffee shop or the new restaurant. We exchange news about our lives in the midst of ordering from the menu, or waving hello to other people we know. We catch up, but do we really share?
I was listening to a friend describe his work volunteering at a local jail, where he meets one-on-one with inmates. When he talked about what the inmates needed most from him, I was surprised to hear him say that it was privacy.
A jail is a public place, where everyone is being watched at all times, for pretty practical reasons. Eating, family visits, worship services all take place with other people around, but not these visits with the volunteer.
He was able to offer the inmates some time alone in a room with another human being, who wasn't a lawyer. No offense here to the lawyers, but the inmates were starved for a private conversation about something other than their case.
Before hearing about it, I had pictured my friend being a wise listening ear and a counselor. But he was more modest. He felt that the most valuable service he offered was not his advice. It was just a quiet room and a little privacy to have a one-on-one conversation.
When I think about it, the best conversations I have are in quieter places. In a quiet one-on-one conversation, we hear ourselves differently. We say different things about our lives.
Sometimes the best place to meet is the one that has no line at the door. When you share a cup of coffee at your kitchen counter, you see the other person's face and hear their tone of voice.
In a crowded public space, we can hide those things from one another. A raised menu shields an expressive face. The laughter of people at other tables drowns out the sadness we might otherwise have shared. Instead of arguing about things that matter, argue about who pays the check.
There are a lot of lonely people in the world who are in search of community and more company. But there are also people who are desperate for more private time with one other person. Sometimes I think I may be one of them.
My friend's story about the jail reminded me how lucky I am to have a quiet kitchen and a place to make coffee for a friend. I should do it more often.