I have always thought the first rule of communication was common ground. Now this doesn’t mean that just anyone you meet is going to share all of your interests, but there are topics that everyone will discuss with a certain degree of camaraderie such as the weather, what type of day it might be or the ubiquitous “Are you working hard, or hardly working?” And when we make the attempt to speak to the people we meet rather than at them, this common ground becomes easier to find.
I do enjoy a good conversation, anywhere and anytime. As my wife has said on numerous occasions, I will talk to anyone; and my daughter usually amends that statement by adding “whether they want you to or not.”
Because of this, I have been fortunate to have made friends with people along a broad spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds, genders and ages. I believe it’s a good way to keep the world in perspective, and keep our thoughts grounded. And it comes with the added benefit of my older friends providing me with stories I might not have heard yet, and my younger friends providing me with an audience that hasn’t heard everything I have to say for the hundredth time.
The benefits go beyond my being able to tell the same joke or make the same observation repetitively. Speaking with people who have more experience can help us to confirm the theories we have and the decisions we have made, whether those might be good or bad. Speaking with younger people has the benefit of a perspective not jaded by bad experiences on a topic. For instance, I discovered long ago that it was not that skateboarding was a waste of time, but rather that I am just not any good at it. Some people are, though, and enjoy it immensely. I personally never got past the looking for the cup holder for my coffee, or even remaining upright — but don’t worry, the ground was there to catch me.
The common ground theory made itself more apparent to me on a day a long time ago when I stopped by to wish a friend (not Tony Hawk, by the way) happy birthday. When I knocked on their door and someone I personally did not know opened the door to reveal a room filled with people, most of whom I also did not know, I realized that my friend was having a party. Though obviously in a conversation with other people, my friend signaled me from across the room that they would be right there. So, I was left to my own devices for several minutes. The person who opened the door left, leaving me with the choice of wading into the crowd or simply waiting on my friend.
Though not shy in the slightest, I was on my way somewhere else, so I chose to simply let the party continue and leaned against the doorframe to wait. As I waited, it all started to seem vaguely familiar. I closed my eyes and listened to the words being said, rather than the unfamiliar voices speaking them. After a minute I began to realize I had been to this party decades before. And an amusing thought struck me that if I were to open my eyes and see friends from high school and college, it would really be no surprise. This thought was with me long after I wished my friend a happy birthday and went on about my business.
You see, we all may think that we have invented the wheel or built a better mouse trap, but we were not the first people to roll down the road or build elaborate constructions to protect our cheese. No, the nature of society is such that there had to be others who came before us and experienced at least most of what we will encounter in order for us to follow and repeat the process.
I am 55 years old, and though my memory is good (if I remember correctly), can I still feel all the nuances of 40 years ago? Probably not, because those nuances, ironically, have been somewhat diluted and altered by the experience I am trying to share with my own kid. But you can be sure of one thing; they feel the nuances every bit as keenly as we once did. And if we think back to our own struggles, both accurate and embellished, we should realize how important it is to help them through theirs.
This is mental health month, and we should focus on the mental health of those we love most. Talk to them, and perhaps more importantly hear them. Get to know them and don’t simply judge them based upon our expectations. This applies to everyone we meet, but it is crucial to younger people. We don’t get to, and shouldn’t, be the ones to choose whether their thoughts and feelings are serious or silly. They already know which is which. What we get to do, (hopefully, if they let us) is help them examine and judge those thoughts and feelings for themselves. It is their life, and we should be there to help them live it. And maybe, just maybe, we can make all our lives better.