The Story of a Story

*Originally posted on my website, The Talk Exchange, a facilitation resource for discussion and deliberation.

The Void

“What even is language, guys?” I recall posing this question to my friends, as we were hanging around one of our apartments getting ready to embark on whatever social endeavor we were undertaking that night.  As usual, I got shut down.  No one wanted to entertain a conversation about the origins of language with me.  I was that girl – the one trying to start a “philosophical” discussion amidst expressions of jovial collegiate camaraderie. Don’t get me wrong, thoughts of parties and beer pong were floating around in my head, but something else was missing.  There was a void in the space where good conversations could reside.  They were hiding, but wanted to sneak out and overtake the rest of my thoughts. Ah but yes, the problem – there was no way to express them, so they got stifled and took a back seat in the mind of a college Sophomore just trying to have a good time.

The school year ended. Summer came and I found myself consistently in the aisles of the local Barnes and Noble attempting (attempting being the key word here) to read and comprehend books about different conceptions of the soul, the path to enlightenment, and human destiny. Why? so… you know, I could expand my mental limitations and raise my conscious awareness – all those motions a lost soul trying to find herself through esoteric and existential writings goes through.  Well, it wasn’t working.  My mind wasn’t expanding and that void just continued to expand.

The Catalyst

Then one day during my Barnes and Noble expedition, I came across a book called SoulPancake.  Although the title was catchy, it was the tagline, “Chew on life’s big questions. Speak your mind. Unload your questions. Figure out what it means to be human” that caught my attention.  After doing some intro browsing, I learned that the book was written by Rainn Wilson (who plays Dwight on the Office and happens to be quite an interesting guy) and his team in connection with their website, a virtual platform for discussing these big questions.  The book is divided into nine sections that cover anything from the brain and the soul to science and technology.  Each section has pages with questions, creative challenges, explorations, or lists related to the various topics.

One of the beginning pages includes a section on how the book can be used.  “I’m by myself” reads the left side, while “I’m a people person” sits on the right.  “This book is a catalyst for conversation.  Let the dialogue begin.” And so my quest to tackle life’s big questions began.  As soon as I read this line, I pictured a group of my friends and fellow classmates sitting in a circle discussing their answers to these questions.  My mind was already working developing a plan to make this discussion group happen.

The Group

Flash forward a few months and you would have found me at the meeting spot on campus I had designated on my flyers for the discussion group I decided to call State of the Soul (punny because I go to Penn State, get it?).  I baked cookies and brought milk. It was raining. It was Labor Day.  No one was on campus.  No one came except for my roommate and two awesome friends (thanks guys).  We ate the cookies on my front porch as we looked out to the dreariness and I felt all my hopes for the group wash away with the rain.  I was discouraged.  But I didn’t give up on it (I did make flyers, I couldn’t just back out then).

That next week, I spread the word to some people who spread the word to some more people and before I knew it, the next meeting night came around and I had myself a group of about fifteen people ready to talk.  The discussion was great.  Some interesting perspectives were shared by some interesting people who all connected in some interesting ways.  That night set the precedent for two fulfilling years worth of engaging weekly discussions that explored what it is to be human, with humans. My void was filled.

The Explanation

I’m not telling you this story to showcase my talents and abilities.  My aim isn’t to sound condescending or to belittle you for not wanting to have these kinds of discussions in any way.  I’m sharing my story because I want to tell you that creating a space to explore life’s big questions, if that’s what you want, is possible.  Not only is it possible, but it’s easier than you think.  People are dying for creative outlets to express themselves in a comfortable setting. Especially on a college campus, students often don’t get as many opportunities to voice their opinion in their classes as they would like.  People have a lot of cool things to say – they just need somewhere to say them.  All you have to do is create this space and others will join you in your endeavors.

Why don’t conversations like these happen more often? I’m not sure, but I wish they did.  I would leave our Monday night meetings feeling empowered and fulfilled with a million thoughts bouncing around in my head.  I often felt like I took more away from those sessions than I took from a day, or sometimes even a whole week, of classes.  In those circles, we grew, challenged, and explored.  Together.  At my last State of the Soul meeting as a student, I again baked cookies to share.  But this time I actually had an amazing group of people to share them with – a group that I could have never anticipated at the start of my journey.  My hopes are that individuals around the globe have the opportunity (or create it if they don’t) to take conversation off the interwebs and bring the beauty of discussion back to the physical realm, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul… time to embark on a conversation revolution!

What I have learned throughout my State of the Soul journey…

  • Everyone has something to say.  You just need to ask the right questions.
  • There are only two rules: Be open. Be respectful.
  • Sometimes it’s okay to just sit back and let the group take the reigns.  They will know what to do.
  • Don’t have expectations for your discussions. Or at least, don’t get upset if your expectations aren’t met.
  • Be mindful of others’ comfort level.  You are not going to be able to make everyone happy, but if you it is apparent that someone is extremely uncomfortable, try to steer the conversation in a different direction.
  • Create an environment where people feel like they can come and go as they please.  Don’t make this group into another obligation or mandatory meeting.  Members should head to these discussions in their free time when they feel like it.
  • Don’t get upset if people don’t come back.  You don’t know what their situation is or why they didn’t return.
  • Don’t worry if someone isn’t talking.  Some people just like to observe.
  • Try not to isolate newcomers.  Help them feel welcome.  Encourage them to introduce themselves to the group, even if they come late in the middle of the discussion.
  • If it’s nice out, hold your meeting outside!
  • Throw in a potluck here and there.  People like to eat.  People like to talk.  People like to eat and talk.
  • Don’t let your own opinions and beliefs dictate the flow of the conversation.
  • Appreciate the gift of discussion and that every member had the desire to share this experience with you.  You can never thank your group enough – without them, you would be stuck in your own mind!

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