People may have shifted away from openly discussing spirituality, but that doesn’t mean that modern life can’t be full of spiritual conversations.
People say that religion and politics should never be discussed in public. After all, discussions on those topics don’t usually lead to a very happy, relaxed mood… they mostly descend into a battle of wits that no one truly wins.
It’s understandable that people tend to avoid talking about spiritual subjects, such as our belief systems, our relationship with a higher power, and how it affects our daily lives. And paired with a social shift away from traditional organized religion, it becomes much easier to avoid having any discussions about spiritual topics at all.
But everyone acknowledges that humans have a spiritual dimension to them. We crave something more than just small talk about work, or school, or our relationships. Gossip and inappropriate conversations easily become the only way to “spice up” conversations with our friends, while captivating discussions about life’s big questions—who are we, what do we want to improve about our inner selves, what is our purpose on Earth, and how do we want to benefit our communities?—are few and far in between.
And yet, everyone longs for a deeper connection. Complaints about social media deteriorating in-person interactions, and the stories we consume becoming more and more vapid, are only a manifestation of the frustration society feels at the lack of substance in our conversations. Our friendships need a strong foundation, and it’s really hard to achieve that if we don’t talk about it. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, said:
Whensoever they gather in their meetings let their conversation be confined to learned subjects and to information on the knowledge of the day. If they do thus, they will flood the world with the Manifest Light, and change this dusty earth into gardens of the Realm of Glory. – Baha’u’llah, A Compilation on Bahá’í Education, p. 7
Baha’u’llah suggested that our conversations should help us learn and grow. But how do we have meaningful conversations in a culture that doesn’t make space for them? Sometimes it feels like hitting a wall, getting stuck in small-talk forever and never really getting into anything deeper.
Some years ago, after moving to a new city, I started to feel that the process of making friends was terribly frustrating. We could sit and talk about movies, or the weather, or things that had happened in the news, but I never felt like I was addressing the big issues I was dealing with in my life—like learning how to be more disciplined with myself, dealing with culture shock, and finding ways that I could genuinely help my community. My conversations never got deep enough to find an opening to bring those topics up, and if I did, I felt like people were taken aback and uncomfortable: talking about inner struggles seemed too personal to them.
And in college, I’ve found that people shy away from deep conversations on purpose, afraid to talk about “controversial” topics like religion, the problem of racism, how to deal with mental illness, or how to stop gossip from infiltrating our friend groups. They feel like we’ll inevitably descend into an argument. Others bitterly blame “PC culture,” saying that modern language and thought doesn’t allow us to be open with each other.
But maybe we’re operating under a misunderstanding, thinking that we’re all so terribly different from each other that it’ll be impossible to find something we have in common. Baha’u’llah also said, “Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you.” There is always common ground. What it takes is for us to be compassionate and kind in our language, so we can establish that connection.
One word is like unto springtime causing the tender saplings of the rose-garden of knowledge to become verdant and flourishing, while another word is even as a deadly poison. It behoveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah. p. 173
But just saying nice things and believing that we have “wisdom” doesn’t add value to our words. It’s the process that brings about change in all of us. As we build on each other’s experiences and outlooks on life, even recurring to other sources such as holy writings or quotes to find inspiration, we learn from each other and the world around us.
And our attitude is extremely important in these situations. Baha’u’llah wrote:
No man of wisdom can demonstrate his knowledge save by means of words. This showeth the significance of the Word as is affirmed in all the Scriptures, whether of former times or more recently. For it is through its potency and animating spirit that the people of the world have attained so eminent a position. Moreover words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating. However, no word will be infused with these two qualities unless it be uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people. – Ibid.
Like with any habit, establishing a pattern in our lives in which we try to have more and more of these meaningful conversations will take time, and—more than anything else—initiative. Sometimes, even organizing a more structured conversation can help us learn how to change the way we approach speaking to others.
After many months of feeling frustrated at the superficiality of my friendships, I braved the unknown and set up a new group activity, to which I invited all those friends. I called it “Coffee and conversation”, found some inspirational quotes, got a table at a local café, and told my friends to come ready to discuss a topic: “What must change first, the individual or society?”
While the topic might seem more philosophical than spiritual at first glance, the conversation that ensued was profoundly spiritual in nature. It was about our relationship to the world around us, our belief in the potential of others, and our confidence in our own capacity to change our communities through positive action. I got to know my friends a lot better in that first meeting, and throughout many other meetings after it. And while it wasn’t an instant fix to our tendency to simplify our conversations outside of the meetings—like any habit, it takes practice—we slowly began to see a change in our interactions. We were more trusting of each other, because we realized that we had more in common than we thought, even when our opinions were very different. As a result, we were more eager to learn from each other.
Through exchanges of this kind, consciousness of spiritual forces is raised, apparent dichotomies yield to unexpected insights, a sense of unity and common calling is fortified, confidence that a better world can be created is strengthened, and a commitment to action becomes manifest. Such distinctive conversations gradually attract ever larger numbers to take part in a range of community activities. – The Universal House of Justice, Message of December 29, 2015.
Our friendships can be much more than just connections based on our material circumstances: they can become strong bonds that tie us together no matter how different our lives are—friendships that we can learn from for years to come. If we want to change the nature of social interactions, we need to start small and build the habit within ourselves and in our circle of friends. Sometimes, this might take more organization, while other times it might just take some individual initiative to bring up a topic we’ve never discussed before.
But if there’s anything all humans have in common it’s our thirst for knowledge, and a connection with something more powerful than any of us. And that spiritual potential can bring us together, if we’re only brave enough to learn how to use it.