According to an article in the New York Times this week, people who regularly engage in deep conversation are happier than those who engage in a lot of small talk. Here is the "money quote" (as they say):
"[S]ubstantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: both because human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people. 'By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world'...."
People want their lives to have meaning. They want existence itself to have meaning. Novel after novel, book after book, movie after movie chronicles the search for meaning, from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes to The Catcher in the Rye and every generation's version ever since. Meaning isn't about logic or reason; it isn't about "universal truths" (other than the one that is stated at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice but even that one was written with her tongue firmly planted in Ms. Austen's cheek). Meaning isn't something one simply "finds" after looking for it. Notice that the article says we not only find, but we "create" and "impose" meaning. We ourselves have something to do with deciding what meaning is and how it exists in the world and in our lives. Sometimes we talk about "making sense" of things that happen in our lives, and this is not about logic or reason. Meaning is about faith and mystery and love and compassion and beauty and a particular truth that resonates with one's core being. And as the Times article makes clear, meaning has to do with relationship, and interaction on a deep level both creates and fosters relationship.
The Times article notes that the psychologist who did the research on which the article reports plans next to ask people to increase the number of substantive conversations they have daily. This is where I become curious. How do we, sophisticates living in the fast-paced, cynical, bottom-line driven Twenty-First Century do that? Other than by putting it on our calendars or to-do lists or by paying someone to converse with us? We are awfully self-conscious, too. Isn't it kind of sloppy to go around having meaningful conversations unless they occur late at night, around a fire or accompanied by a bottle of wine (or two).
Being part of a faith community is also about the search for meaning. The notion of being connected to something bigger than ourselves gives us a sense of being connected to meaning itself. We sometimes fail miserably in our efforts of meaning-making (trying to impose "sense" on senseless things, like tragic accidents, abuse, death and destruction and so end up with a TV preacher announcing that the earthquake in Haiti is God's punishment for a pact with the devil). But the faith community is a venue - a container - for discussion about meaning and about our attempts to engage and participate in God's life somehow.
For young people, the faith community must be a place where deep discussion and engagement with matters of meaning can take place. It is sometimes said that if we want to keep young people coming to church, we better not talk too much about God, or it will turn them off. But where else are they going to engage such ideas and questions? If the church or synagogue is not the place to do that, where on earth is? School? Starbucks? The Debate Club? I think the ones who say that are the ones who themselves are self-conscious about God-stuff. They don't want to talk about God, either, and do what is truly hard work of making sense of our existence. I suspect because they have some deep doubts they'd rather not share in public.
Making sense of our existence is hard work. And why not? It ought to be. Life is more complicated than a Rubik's Cube. And so we do so in community. We engage with one another our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our doubts, our questions, our search. We make meaning, we create it, we become truly ourselves (and happy!) when we are fully engaged in not only the search but also in the sharing.