THE WEATHER

According to the calendar and the trees outside, the grass that has already been mowed once, the dandelions that somehow escaped the mover, the geese and other migratory birds that are back, it is spring in Nova Scotia. But no matter what the signs suggest, it has been a cold, wet, miserable spring. We are Canadian so we generally endure. We have lots of ways of making ourselves feel “better” about the slow coming of warm sunny weather.

All the rain is good for the farmers. Of course, we have to ignore the reality that although they might be grateful for the rain, it makes it pretty much impossible to get fields ready for planting—tractors churn the soil into mud and then get stuck. The rain also makes the grass grow—as if that is a good thing to someone like me whose dislike of mowing lawns verges on the pathological. And there is always the old saying, “April showers bring May flowers”, which might be somewhat helpful if May had some actual sunshine that encouraged us to get out and find the may flowers.

In the end, the weather is the weather. We live with whatever comes. Whether the weather is good or bad, it does have a vital function in human relationships—it gives us something to talk about. That is more than just a cynical attempt at humour. Talking about the weather may well be one of the most common conversational themes among people and as such, it serves a vital role in human relationships.

Talking about the weather is more than small talk. It actually serves as a powerful tool that helps us determine whether we can and should engage in further communication. It allows us to gauge the status of the person we are meeting without asking outright if they are in a good mood and if it is safe to talk to them. Talking about the weather tells us a lot about the individual, their current state and the relative value and safety of carrying on with the conversation.

Most human are totally unaware that this is what we are doing when we talk about the weather. Some, in fact, downplay and even claim to hate talking about the weather. They believe such small talk gets in the way of real conversation. My experience has been that if we aren’t going to talk about the weather with someone, we probably aren’t going to have a pleasant, good or constructive conversation with the person. We might talk but without the lubricant and evaluation provided by the weather discussion, we have no sense of the other’s context or state and rather than enter the serious side of the conversation prepared, we go in cold and have to discover the context and status while at the same time dealing with whatever heavy stuff the conversation brings.

So, over the years, I have learned to deeply appreciate small talk, discussions about the weather, TV shows, new cars (and old cars), kids and grandkids and so on. Sometimes, the small talk has been interesting all by itself—one friend years ago had a seemingly inexhaustible store of old sayings related to the weather that I found fascinating and more than a bit true. Sometimes, the small talk has been the whole conversation—we complain about the wet, the dry, the cold, the heat and then move on. But somehow, something has been put in place that allows a deeper conversation somewhere down the road.

And occasionally, the weather talk leads directly to a significant and serious conversation that likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to give the right signals during the discussion of the wet or dry or snowy weather.

Mostly, I don’t care about what the weather is. I do appreciate rain on the days I am supposed to mow the lawn because it gives me an excuse to sit inside and read or write. But I do deeply appreciate the weather because of its profound effect in human interaction. If we can talk comfortably about the weather, we set the stage for being able to comfortably talk about almost anything. So, we have had a wet, cold, miserable spring—think about how many conversations have been able to grow and flourish from that wonderful beginning.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTEN!

I have been studying the communicating process for a long time and have read—and written—a lot of stuff trying to understand the whole complicated process. Over that time, I have learned a couple of things. The first is that with all the possible problems and impediments, it sometimes amazes me that we can communicate at all.

The second thing I have learned is that most of the time, the major disruption in the communication process comes about because of a significant lack of one vital part of the process. Stripped of all the verbiage and explanations and descriptions, communication involves three elements: a message, a sender and a receiver. Two of those elements are abundant and one is scarce.

There are tons of senders—everyone and everything had a message to send. Our world is filled with senders. We use sound and sight and touch and smell and who knows what ways to send our message. According to relatively new scientific discoveries, even plants are sending messages to other plants. Senders are not in short supply. And that means that messages are also not in short supply, which makes sense. If there are an infinite number of senders, there must be an even larger number of messages, unless each sender limits itself to one message, which is unlikely.

So we have no shortage of senders and consequently no shortage of message, which suggests that the breakdown comes with the third required element, the receivers. My experience as a pastor and counsellor and my research supports this—message receivers are in short supply.

Here is a very common pastoral counselling scenario. I am listening to someone tell me about their problems. The problems can be trivial or moderate or severe. They talk about their problem and their frustrations and their struggles. And, in a great many cases, somewhere in their message, they will make the comment that one of the problems is that nobody will listen to them. Leaving aside the reality that I am actually listening to them, I can understand their message.

People don’t like to receive messages—we don’t actually like listening. We might listen to a bit but mostly, we want people to stop sending messages so that we can continue sending our messages. We especially don’t want to hear messages that are going to inconvenience us, bother us, ask something of us, upset our comfortable world view or harm our ability to get our message out. So, we live in a culture which has a surfeit of senders, an overdose of messages and very few receivers, which probably explains why our culture also has sky high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other forms of social and emotional dysfunction.

When nobody listens, nobody is heard. When nobody receives, the communication process is broken. We have senders sending to emptiness and messages going nowhere. But if the sender’s message isn’t received, everyone involved suffers and the message is lost.

I wish I could say that there is a simple solution to this problem. But there really isn’t. Listening is hard work. We seem to be predisposed to sending and reluctant to receive. As a theologian, I would suggest that that is a result of our essential self-centeredness, what the Bible calls sin. We all want to be the most important being in all creation, the being whose messages are received by everyone else without our having to be bothered by receiving messages from beings who aren’t us.

Communication breaks down because we are selfish, often too selfish to stop broadcasting our message long enough to receive someone else’s message. I once read a description of conversation that suggested that a conversation consists of me thinking of what I am going to say once you stop talking.

It is possible to learn how to receive messages from others—it takes hard work, as many former students of mine will attest. But the hardest part of learning to listen is the willingness to stop being so selfish. In order to really receive a message from someone else, we need to actually focus on them, not on ourselves. Once we make that commitment, the rest is easy. But as long as we focus on ourselves, we will ignore the message, distort the message, misunderstand the message—we will not receive it.

May the peace of God be with you.