Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Asking questions, a simple and profound kindness

What is most important to a person's happiness?

That may not be the right question to pose given that it's 2 AM :) But an answer's already popped into my brain, so here goes: assuming there are many good answers, one possibility is that it's essential to feel connected to the people and world around us. It's important to feel valued, relevant, understood, and a sense of interdependency with at least a handful of people, if not more. If that's the case, then sincerely asking others about how they feel and what they think about this or that may be one of the kindest things a person can do. Nothing builds bridges like asking questions and, unless the people you're with feel comfortable freely volunteering information about themselves, there is no other way to bridge the divide.

The topic's been on my brain because I just had some conversations with people who are unable to do that. I asked them a question, they answered. I asked another, they answered. And so on and so on . . . and if I didn't ask them something, the conversation would go dead. I've been in so many conversations like that it seems. From my experience, most people love to chat about themselves and very few people socialize with the intent of connecting with others. If they wanted to connect, if they wanted it to be a two-way-thing, . . . they would ask questions.

Can you judge a person's character by how well they converse? I think so. I'm not referring of course to the size of their vocabulary or the profundity of their thoughts. I'm referring to the extent to which they converse for the purpose of connecting with others. Do they monopolize conversations, stealing the spotlight and promote their agendas? Or do they use conversations as opportunities to share their own opinions *and* have their minds enriched by the input of others? Or simply to laugh with others, share a moment in time with another person?

The people whom I most respect are excellent conversationalists. They possess the ingredients necessary for great conversation: confidence and curiosity. They like themselves enough to share their own thoughts, but, because they are curious about the world around them and because they genuinely care about other people, they are equally interested in knowing what others have to say.

On the flip side, the people I know who are the most self-centered and mean are the worst conversationalists. They constantly talk about themselves and their favorite topics and when it comes to other people and things in life they don't know about, they just don't care.

Somewhat on a tangent, I've decided that one of the meanest things a person can do is intentionally isolate another person. There are people in my life who, I'm sorry to say, are very mean and emotionally abusive. The way they abuse others is by isolating them: never laughing at their jokes, never sharing their opinions on anything, making them feel alone or awkward for feeling a certain way or saying a certain thing, not making eye-contact, flat out ignoring them and, of course, *never* asking questions. As someone who's been on the receiving end of that, I can say that isolation is one of the most painful things I've ever experienced. That makes connectedness one of the most joyful things I've ever experienced. Again, ask questions :) Or smile. Include the other person, etc. etc.

As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate kindness in others much more than I used to. Lately, I've found myself wanting to reach out to people I remember from my past who possessed that rare quality of truly caring about the world around them and the people in it . . . people who reached out to me. I can think of an old piano teacher, an aunt and uncle and a cousin. It's a short list, really. But I want people like that in my life. I think they possess a greatness, a generosity of spirit that inspires me to be a better person.

I've also re-evaluated what really matters when it comes to interacting with people. It's great if you're beautiful, funny, intelligent, . . . the life of the party as they say. But the thing that qualifies you to socialize is your desire to connect with others. As long as you approach any social situation with the desire to obtain some kind of mutual understanding, then it's a success. I have to keep that in mind sometimes, seeing as how I'm a rather reserved, quiet person. I never feel like I have anything to say. But that doesn't matter, actually. What matters is how well I reach out.

I'm too lazy now that it's 3:30 AM to give this a proper conclusion. Let's just say that I don't want to be like those people earlier who never ask questions if only because, in the long run, self-centered people end up isolating themselves. They don't grow. They're always on the defensive. They already know everything, and, as a result, they refuse to learn anything new. They're unable to truly cooperate with others and bring out the best in other people, which makes them unable to be partners in lasting, meaningful friendships and relationships. Sadly, for those emotionally abusive people I talked about earlier, I've watched the arc of their lives. I've watched them destroy themselves and so many good things. It's a poison. It's harrowing. It's tragic.

Ask questions.


Joe Venito said...

I'm probably not much of a conversationalist - too reserved generally, but there are about 47 questions I'd like to ask you. I guess, starting with: what are you up to?

Kristin said...

Hey! 47 questions? That's a lot Joe. I think you would make a great conversationalist. My dad's company is having a get-together and company members are forming a band last minute. They needed a guitarist so I'm filling in. So you asked what I'm doing now, and the answer is . . . practicing. It will be hilarious. The theme is the '60s and we'll be dressing in hippy kitschy stuff and playing profound music like T. Rex's "Get it On, Bang a Gong." :) I hope to get back to this blog, soon though. You've written some great comments that deserve thoughtful responses . . . what are you doing?

Joe Venito said...

I still think you give me too much credit. At this point, I think I should let you know that my name isn't actually Joe. You can call me E if you want, or you can call me Joe, or Dr. Venito (though that's no more accurate than Joe).

Why does it seem like you dressing in kitschy hippy attire and playing songs like T.Rex's 'Get it on, etc.' isn't out of the ordinary at all for you?

Well, it's fall break, so I'm back home for the weekend avoiding (so far successfully) doing any school work. It's alright, but stressful to be back home.

Question 2: What do you want out of life? Interpret it however you feel. The interpretation is part of the question ('How would you interpret the question 'What do you want out of life?'), so I'll count it as 2 on my list of 47 questions.

Joe Venito said...

Question 4: I'm asking everyone this, so you might as well get an ask: Should I switch majors from English to Political Science? I'm definitely keeping my creative writing minor.

kristinparker said...

Grrrrr . . . I typed up an answer and it failed to post. Well I'm back, possibly repeating myself. Okay, here goes. As to political science v. english, it seems like it should be english because you are so talented at analyzing movies and literature. That's a gift. What's your dream? I can see you being a writer, you're very smart and thoughtful. A politician? I don't have the highest opinion of politicians which isn't fair but . . . they seem to be very public and superficial. From what I know of you, that's not you. You seem much better suited for the arts, for writing . . . not politics.

Of course I don't know you very well, but that's my instinct. That said, what would be more fun? What would you enjoy studying more? That's what you should do.

As to what I want out of life. Instantly I knew: artistic fulfillment. I want to make something worth hearing. If I don't obtain that goal, I'll still be happy just striving for it. There are other things I'd like in life, but that's the one thing I can't live without attempting.

Our band is pretty bad. . . at least we'll "look" good, I think. But we don't sound like we're playing the same chords half the time. Geeze!! :)

kristinparker said...

What do you want out of life, by the way? That's a great question for someone who isn't much of a conversationalist ;)

Joe Venito said...

Well, I wouldn't go into politics. The way I see it, I would have the same basic marketable skills with an English degree and a creative minor as I would with a Poli Sci degree and creative writing minor - writing and research abilities. Those are my two main interests. I am very interested in English, but it feels kind of redundant to get the English degree with the CW minor.

With Poli Sci, my choices open up a little more in that I could go into lobbying (for the good guys, of course), or still speechwriting or marketing. I might try to get my MFA in Creative Writing. The problem is, if I go into PoliSci, then I have to tale five classes a semester for the rest of my time here. I don't know, I'm going to talk to someone about it later. I'm just kind of taking an opinion poll right now.

When you say 'artistic fulfillment,' what do you mean? That's kind of broad. What is 'fulfillment?' What fulfills you?

As far as what I want out of life... I have no idea, and that's the problem. Maybe I'll get back to it later.

Question 5: TBA

kristinparker said...

Hmmm . . . the question to ask yourself, I think, is: If you had to step into a classroom right now, would you rather it be an English or Poli Sci classroom? What first pops into your head? What would you enjoy more? What would be more in your comfort zone? What interests you, etc. Where would it be easier for you go get the A? Not that grades matter so much, but it's nice to spend the least amount of time studying possible so that you can put time into your own creative writing. You said you'd have to take more classes to do Poli Sci, right? Maybe think twice about that. You know, the years come and go very quickly. I can't believe I'm already 25. Time is very precious and you have to ask yourself if you want to spend it in a classroom working on "their" assignments. If that work interests you, then that's great. But I think it's best to spend the least amount of time in a classroom as possible . . . particularly if you're an artist. And you're a writer, so . . .

I don't think it would be redundant to get the English and Creative Writing degrees. It might seem that way on the surface of things, but they're different. I mean, with English classes, you're analyzing other people's work. With Creative Writing, you're creating your own work. Actually, I think they compliment each other.

Do what you want, in the most simple, light hearted sense of the expression!

Don't worry about "marketability." I don't think any BAs are all that marketable, actually.

As far as artistic fulfillment, that means making something I'm proud of. Making something that I enjoy listening to as much as my favorite songs, that I think holds up with the best of 'em. That's pretty ambitious. But, like I said, it doesn't matter if I get there. It's more that enjoy trying . . .

Joe Venito said...

See, and that's the thing: they both interest me. PoliSci inspires my writing a little more, but let's face it - I can't depend on writing for food. And at the end of the day, I hate to say it like this, nothing on my degree (my major, activities, GPA anything) will be as important as 'Richmond' in finding a job. So, while English and CW compliment each other, to me, so do PoliSci and CW. And as for spending a lot of time in a classroom... I really don't have much else going on in my life right now, so why not?

I know I'm kind of all over the place here, and for that I apologize. Anyway, question 5 is an easy one that you're probably used to answering and tired of: Why don't you date? Do you go out of your way to avoid guys you might want to date, or are you just not interested, or married, or what's the deal with that?

kristinparker said...

Hmmm . . . it seems to me like you are leaning towards PoliSci and Creative Writing. I've tried to talk you into English and Creative Writing twice to no avail, so,

The answer is: . . . triple major!! :)

Or a coin toss.

Just kidding. Actually, it seems like you really are leaning towards PoliSci. If you think "PoliSci," do you feel a little bit more closure in your gut? Like that is the right thing to do even though it might be easier to talk yourself into English since it's fewer classes, etc.?

Poli Sci, I think.

Have you taken any Poli Sci classes? Sometimes you don't really know until you try out the departments. And, at a certain point, just pick one and finish it, know what I'm saying? They'd both be good.

Maybe Poli Sci gives you a break from the whole "literary" world? It gives you another perspective, more breadth of knowledge?

As for the dating, how did you know I didn't date? Did I say that somewhere? Haha, probably. The long and short of it is that I haven't met the right person. And I probably said this earlier somewhere if dating came up, but I'm very, very serious about it . . . I see it as preparation for marriage, not as something to do casually. Not that it would be wrong to do casually, but it's like . . . what's the point? I think relationships are only interesting if they're deep, if they go somewhere. I hate small talking and "hanging out." I just want to find a soul mate and settle down. This is just my gut instinct, but I don't feel like I need to "shop around" a lot to find that person. When I meet someone I could "go deep" with, I think I'll know it. You can't predict if you'll marry someone right off the bat, of course, but I think you can tell within a few conversations if it's someone you'd like to spend a lot of time with.

Which brings me to time. Everything's a hobby and everything has trade offs. I have this dream of how well I want to play the guitar and the reality is that I don't have hours to put into a relationship or a marriage. So I'm glad in away that I'm not getting tangled up with Mr. Right right now because I couldn't spend the hours on my instrument that I need to in order to play as well as I hope to. I definitely feel lonely sometimes, often even . . . and I wish I had time to do it all. You reach a certain age and you want to have companionship and all of that, but, if I had to choose . . . I'd chose my guitar any day. Particularly since I've seen so many failed marriages in my day and I'm just a wee bit cynical about relationships as a result. I see art as this constant, this thing that will always, always, always be there for me. So I'd rather throw my chips at practicing the guitar over hunting through

I like a quote from Oprah, hehe: "You can have it all, you just can't have it all at once." I'm hoping she's right, crossing my fingers. Maybe five years out will be a good time for me to start looking and I'll get lucky . . .

Joe Venito said...

I actually came here to double-major in English and Russian Cultural Studies, but I can only be here for 4 semesters (3 more), and then they stop paying for me. This isn't California with your crazy free universities... It's the south, mane. So, that's the nice part of the English/Creative Writing thing - a lot of the classes cross over. I actually loved my PoliSci class at my old school, it was one of the hardest classes there (the tests were hour-long, 50 multiple choice, ten short answer and 2 five paragraph essays)and I still got something like a 95 in it.

Anyway, I know what you mean about dating. I mean, I'm getting old, man. And I want something serious, you know, someone to come home to, so to speak. And I'm not going to find that on this campus. Walls keep some problems out, but they also keep people in and all that. In the meantime, well, I might as well do what I do, right?

You've managed to maintain interesting through 5 questions, so here's 6 and 7: Do you have a job, or is it literally just guitar? And 7 - Are you one of these crazy folk?

Kristin said...

Hey, so are you on scholarship? Russian Cultural studies, wow. You're all over the place man, I give up. Just flip a coin, Joe :)

I had a Russian piano teacher (actually Georgian, but she spoke Russian) growing up, which made me more interested in Russian things. Russian classical music is something special. It's "edgy" with passion. Composers like Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev have a kind of rock star glamour. Lots of passion but also smart and innovative. Sometimes music comes off as being one or the other. Schoenberg's atonal surrealism sounds smart but heartless. Mozart's music is obviously smart but, to the untrained ear, it often sounds simplistically harmonious and "merely" beautiful. With the Russians their music sounds philosophically driven, but there are also lots of emotional highs and lows and moments of great beauty. With the exception of some works by Beethoven, I think the Russians are the only ones who succeeded at writing classical music that's exciting.

How would you describe Russian literature? I'm curious if it's like the music. What little Russian literature I've read seems to fit that bill.

As far as the dating goes, you're only 23, Joe. You're just a baby. I'm just a baby. You are doing exactly what you should be doing with your life right now at your young age which is getting a good education. I have friends who are married with kids right now and their lives are so practical. They don't have time to think about who or what God is, to contemplate socio-political issues, or write creative stories. Done, it's over. I teach piano to a few families who had kids later, in their late 30s and 40s and it's much better because the parents have more interests and hobbies, more money, everything. Marriage and kids are for later. Don't rush life!

As far as a job, yes, I'm a piano teacher. I teach for an hour or two a day, but most of the day is practicing. I love, love, love my job. I'm putting most of my time into practicing, because, why not? My parents let me live at home which cuts expenses and so I don't need the money. So I might as well put the time into my personal educational pursuits. But I do enjoy teaching. Not all musicians do. I'm really thankful that I have something "practical" that I love to do . . .

Am I crazy? Definitely! :) I can drive myself quasi insane if I spend too many hours by myself. But mostly I think I'm crazy in a good way, well, hopefully. I do often feel like I'm on my own little planet, not so much because people don't like me, but because I choose for it to be that way. You're artistic and intellectual, do you sometimes feel that way, too? It's easier to daydream and think and all of that when you're on your own.

Joe Venito said...

I know it's been a while, but I wanted to ask you something. So, I've been getting a couple of pieces ready for publication and I was wondering if you wanted to take a look at them. Question 8, then, is if you'll take a look at them for me and let me know what you think. Question 9 is if you have a place I can send them. Question 10 is if you've been okay.

Joe Venito said...

Just a thought that if you post your e-mail address to my blog and then delete it something close to immediately, it should end up safely in my inbox.

kristinparker said...

Joe, absolutely, I'd be honored. It's not like the spam-bots would find my email anyway, but I'll write it out like this (I'm also amused to see it like this): kristinparker22 at mac dot com

As far as your question 10, I'm getting by as they say. How are you?

Joe Venito said...

Yeah, that is a pretty funny way to see it. I was looking at it and thinking how weird it is, plus I haven't seen a mac email address in ages.

Question 11 (I'm a man of my word, when I say I'll ask 47 questions, you can bet I will): I was talking to my uncle who doesn't like rap music, and it got me thinking about those essential, genre defending albums. Long story short, what would you say are, let's say, the five essential rap albums? Just for the sake of comparison, what would you say are the five essential rock albums? And we'll say that 'essential' means what you want it to mean, to make the whole esoteric debate easier.

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