Fighting Nature, Fighting Ourselves, and in Winning Do We Lose?

I have a saying I made up sometime around the mid 90’s, a time when world population was an issue that made the headlines, when our population was approaching 6 billion people. “We can fix our population problem ourselves, or nature will fix it for us. If we fix it ourselves there are two options, we can either stop people being born or kill ourselves faster. If we wait too long to make a decision then nature will take that choice from us.” I admit I was drunk at the time when I came up with this, it was one of those political discussions only drunk people can have, but having thought about it since I still stand by it.

To some extent the west has already chosen to stop people being born. I don’t believe it is a conscious decision at a societal level but one introduced socially by our own genetic makeup. Whether genetics had this by design or accident doesn’t really matter. At some point our lives got easy, easier than at any point in human history. Overabundance of calories meant the population on average became fatter, reducing sperm count and testosterone leading to an overall decrease in fertility. Large cities create a plethora of partner choices, which contrary to free market thinking actually makes dating harder. People wait longer to be married and the window on women’s fertility drops the longer they wait to have children. There are more factors then these involved but overall the west’s birth rate is now well under 2 children per women in some countries which are far from close to replacement rates.

In other cultures and countries they are slowly joining the west. India has dropped from 24 people born per 1000 people every year to 19. Only the poorest most desperate third world countries are maintaining their birth rates. The human survival instinct is still very much running strong in these countries.
As for killing ourselves faster, well we were doing a good job of that for the first half of the 20th century but frankly our war efforts haven’t been up to the task. I’ve said that jokingly but in all honesty as many as the people who die from war and other methods of mass murder are, this hasn’t been a serious contender in managing the world’s population, it’s also a method that is extremely detrimental to Nature in the countries involved.

So what would nature taking control look like? In the past there were meteor strikes and supernova, but they took out close to 60-80% of all life on Earth. What about something targeted directly at humanity? We are unlikely to have any predators develop, out intelligence puts us at the top of the food chain even though as far as predators go we are soft, pink and not scary at all. Is there something else? Well, in 1918 it didn’t start with a bang or a flash, it started with a fever and diarrhea and 2 years later 5% of the world’s population was dead, all because of the Spanish flu. Or it creates a zikka virus killing our unborn babies. We place great faith in our science today but science takes time, and two years to develop a vaccine or cure is still too short for any serious disease. Nature is perfectly capable of throwing new diseases at us, it does so continually and whether these are antibiotic resistant strains of diseases we already have or completely new diseases our next Spanish flu is likely only a few mutations away.

Yet Huston, we have a problem. You see we contribute to these mutations, we speed them up and in some cases we cause them. Our very fight against nature in our efforts to control nature is likely to create the very killers we are trying to avoid.

Whether we like it or not humanity is part of nature. We build our houses to keep out the weather. We wash our hands to stop getting sick, we build fences to keep out the wild animals and we develop drugs to turn back the tide against virus’ and microbes. Yet no matter how much we like to think we have control of our environment we are still part of the world’s ecosystem, and ecosystems always strive for balance. Whenever there is too much of something or too little in an ecosystem the ecosystem strives to create something that will eat it, kill it or fill the gap. When you clear a field and plant wheat a common, but mostly harmless, rust fungus is given an environment in which to thrive. When you chop down a forest plants that struggled to survive in the forest setting become the weeds of tomorrow. When you make a species extinct an animal is there to reproduce and take the extinct species place. There are no excesses or vacuums in nature, if you make a space in an ecosystem it will be filled by something else, if you have too much of something nature will make it into lunch.

So humanity becomes its own worst enemy. We have too much of one thing – people, cattle and crops, and at the same time too little of another – forests, species and diseases. Nature isn’t in balance at the moment; it hasn’t been for a few hundred years now, but less so in the last 50. We have created too much of one thing and destroyed too much of others. Predators may develop to take out our cattle, but they will take too long to mutate, the generational cycle of animals is measured in decades and years, our scientists will be able to keep ahead of nature’s mutations here. The same applies to plants whose generation cycles are measured in years and months. Yet what scares me is the overuse of pesticides, fungicides, antibiotics and other chemicals we use to control fungus’s, bacteria and viruses. The generational cycle of these things are measured in days and minutes. Eventually we will have enough holes in our ecosystem that only these small things can reproduce and mutate fast enough to fill the voids. We are creating the very conditions that make the next Spanish flu, or swine flu or blue green algae epidemic possible.

I started writing this because a friend of mine is fighting to save the Amazon, directly so in her dream job in Peru. I think her job is worth doing, we should be trying to prevent too many holes in our world ecosystem. Yet I don’t think she will win, not until it’s already too late, if it isn’t already. She wants to connect people with nature again, which if there weren’t too many of us already this would probably work. But the world has created too many holes in nature and we have filled them with cities, towns and farms. It’s an impossible job to reconnect people with nature again because most people are too removed from the world’s ecosystem. We have too much belief in our ability to control the world around us and we underestimate the power of Nature. I think we are secretly relieved that we have won the battle for control, it means we live in the relative safety of our houses and farms that surround us. Yet I think we fail to see that in winning the battle we have set up the circumstances that will lose us the war.

So is this doom and gloom a warning, or prophesy, I don’t know. I was trying to get my thoughts together on this subject and often I usually don’t know what my thoughts are until after I have written them. I’m a special little snowflake sometimes; I see patterns and trends in things that most people miss. I’m not always right but I’m usually more right than wrong, and every time I come back to nature vs humanity I can’t help but think I’m still right, no matter how much I want to be wrong. I think humanity may be in for a rough time in the next fifty years. I don’t think we will halt our population growth quickly enough. I think our hospitals will become some of the most dangerous places on Earth, places of super bugs even casual visitors can catch. I think we will watch most of our crops and cattle die of diseases we can no longer spray or treat. Lastly I think we will see more and more exotic diseases being born into existence to fill the holes we have created and I don’t see any way we can prevent this. I think we won the battle but we might lose the war, nature doesn’t need humanity, but we need nature. Nature will survive long after we have gone, no matter how many holes we create, no matter how hard we try and control it.


Advertising Agency: TBWA\PARIS, France
Executive Creative Director / Creative Director: Erik Vervroegen
Copywriter: Nicolas Roncerel
Art Directors: Caroline Khelif, Leopold Billard, Julien Conter
Account Supervisor : Laurent Lilti
Released: April 2008

What’s In a Smile?

I see that smile, almost full size yet not quite as wide as it should; a touch of sadness in the corners weighing them down, not much but just enough. What’s in that smile that that looks so heavy? Smiles are not meant to carry burdens, they are meant to set them free. I see that smile you struggle to raise and I’m left with a feeling it needs a friend, a friend that understands that sometimes a smile has a past to lift.

I see that smile so slow to appear, not much but just a bit. A little hesitation as if seeking permission “Is this face allowed to smile?” What’s in that smile that makes it pause? What does it say of the heart beneath? Does that heart of yours stall, believing it hasn’t yet earned the right, the right to smile? I see that smile and I’m left with a feeling that it needs a light, just a little, enough to show your heart the way is clear.

I see that smile almost reach your eyes, almost but not quite. It seems to try so hard, wanting to ignite that spark. Yet as much as it tries it never quite hits your eyes. What’s in that smile that holds it back? What’s on your mind that pushes it down? It seems so pale without the eyes and those eyes they still search, for what I know not. I see that smile and I’m left with a feeling that it needs a hand to hold, a hand to remind you that hope had never left.

I see that smile, a smile I’ll never remember. Faceblind I be yet blind I am not. How I wish I could remember these smiles, just one, that would be enough. Instead it fades with the turn of my head. So I ask myself what’s in a smile I can never recall. All I can remember are the feelings it ignites. It’s the one thing you can never hide, those feelings in your smile. Be they distaste, hurt, joy or bliss the smile displays it all. They say your eyes are windows to the soul but your smile, your smile leads straight to your heart. So I wish I could remember a smile but I’d rather remember your heart.

So what’s in a smile?

Only your heart, and yes it still beats.

Photo thanks to Leonid Mamchenkov

The Day the Angels Cried

Portrait in a 1000 words for my good friend Helen
Occasionally I will do a portrait in a 1000 words for friends of mine when they ask. It’s a portrait in words of how I see them.

Since the time before life existed, the time when Lucifer had been cast from Heaven Angels have fought. The side aligned with God for order, the side aligned with Lucifer for Chaos. Good and Evil, birth and destruction, stasis and change locked eternally in a battle for domination. For billions of years Angels have fought neither side ever winning as they try to prove which side was right. God had withdrawn once he had cast Lucifer out, his plan had been set in motion, and not noticing that God had withdrawn the Angels fought on.

When Humans finally entered into the fray the nature of the battle between Angels changed. They still fought with stars and atoms, force and matter, but there was something about these humans. A whisper here, a shadow there and these humans would fight the Angels battles completely unaware. Yet humans were neither good nor bad so even the best laid plans of Angels would go awry. There was something in humans that drew Angels from afar to play this game of words, it attracted them and they knew not why. They didn’t know what it was about these humans but they added passion to this which which had not existed before they walked the earth.

Helen, oblivious to the ethereal battle waging around was in many respects a fairly typical representative of the human race. She laughed, she cried, she struggled and had moments of peace. As with most humans she constantly sought to find her purpose in life, her reason for being. To some extent she found this in her work, her art. She didn’t quite know what it was about creating but she always found herself absorbed in it. She lost herself in taking raw ingredients and building them into something. Adrift in her mind as she then destroyed little bits of the very thing she had created to turn it into something else. To Helen no day was complete without some creation brewing, it was her life and her work was almost as important to her as her family.

Now Helen was no Gandhi but she was also no Hitler. She was good at what she did, had a life to be envious of, a handsome husband, a beautiful daughter and wonderful friends. This is not to say she wasn’t extraordinary but in the halls of power in which the Angels flew her voice and talents were not large enough for them to notice in their normal scheming. This is of course except for the odd fleeting moments where an Angel might fly by and toy with any stray human who crossed their paths. It was just such an occurrence in which an Angel paused momentarily in Helen’s house as she was working, designing a new logo for an eco-tourism company.

Now this particular Angel was aligned with God and she started to whisper into Helen’s ear.
“Draw a forest perfectly preserved, untouched, never to be despoiled.”
Of course thinking she had her inspiration Helen started. As always, to the frustration of Angels, Helen never quite drew as the Angel had whispered, she left lines unfinished and rubbed others out. So this Angel kept whispering in her ear trying to get Helen to create something that should be so simple.
Now no Angel of good can go for long without attracting an Angel of evil to try and undo any order being laid down. So the battle over Helen was joined as two Angels now whispered in her ear.
“Add a bush fire”
“Draw shoots of rebirth in the undergrowth”
“We need a bulldozer and a log cabin”
“Add a fence and a forest ranger”
“Show the effects of acid rain”
“Lichen and moss to absorb the pollution”
“Progress, tear it down”
“Pristine Nature, preserve it”

So Helen drew, never quite adding what was asked and never quite removing what was suggested, frustrating both Angels at every turn. As the crescendo of the Angels whispers steadily grew something amazing happened, Helen became truly lost to her work. She had stopped listening to the whispers of Angels and it was just Helen and her drawing. In the end she drew something remarkable. Life. All of it. In this one design she created a masterpiece of forest and city, animals and humans, nature and machines. In the end she created harmony beautifully rendered on paper.

And so this became the day the Angels cried.

Seeing the final work Helen had just created something changed inside these two Angels. They had been fighting for so long trying to win such an unfathomable war they had lost their purpose. Each had thought their purpose was to win for good or for evil. Each had thought that this was their duty, to win, to either destroy the universe or preserve it. This is not what Helen had shown them though. Helen had shown them something entirely different. Helen had shown them that their purpose was life, that living was their purpose, to be able to create something more than what could be created through either order or chaos alone. This drawing showed them that God had created the Universe with an equal measure of chaos and order because without harmony there could be no life. Without harmony the universe would either be a churning ball of energy or a cold mass of rock and life could have never existed.

So these two Angels understood now; that it was not the Angels purpose to influence humanity but humanities purpose to teach the Angels. The two Angels watching Helen wept in a profound grief at how ignorant and naïve they had been to God’s purpose. Knowing their purpose hand in hand the two Angels leapt into the sky to teach their fellow Angels about life.

Photo thanks to Waiting For The Word

Defining Beauty

I’ve been thinking about beauty lately, because this is my purpose, to show people there is still beauty in this world, to show them how to feel again. Yet how can I do that if I don’t have a good definition of beauty. Something which has qualities which are pleasing or satisfying is too broad, it lacks definition, so I wondered how to refine this definition.

I’ve always been able to see beautiful things, even when the night is darkest, especially because the night is beautiful in its own way. I don’t know what makes me different, why I find it hard to hate, why I can’t disconnect myself enough to see the ugly.

I was looking at a photo of the night sky as I was thinking this, looking at a photo of something most would consider beautiful, yet how many monsters have people imagined living in the dark of night. What is the difference between the night in the photo and the night where monsters live? So in wondering why I couldn’t disconnect myself to hate I had my answer, or at least a part of it.

You see I think beauty is the opening of a connection to the things that please us. It is an illumination of the things we find most satisfying. When we see a photo of the stars above we feel connected to how vast the universe is, we feel connected to the light shining on the world around us. When we don’t bother to look up, when all we know is darkness we aren’t connected. The feeling of being alone and pointless, disconnected, is so overwhelming the mind finds it better to imagine monsters to be connected with than nothing at all, at least monsters give us a purpose, to run and hide.

It’s easy to find beauty in the normal things, a pretty face, an idyllic scene, and children playing. These things connect us to health, vitality, life, the world, freedom from responsibility. We understand these things subconsciously. We can’t help but look at a masterpiece and feel connected to each and every brush stroke, the creativity and imagination that went into its design. Yet there is so much more beauty in the world.

We show stories of the evil miners and their sites of devastation, so much ugly they created. Yet I can’t always see that. Sometimes I am amazed at life, how tenacious and unstoppable it is. I see the life at the edges of this ugly. I see the weeds and the grass fighting the toxic soil with the sole purpose of brining more life after it. Little by little it edges it way towards the center of the mine site, never stopping, relentless. I feel connected to the edge of these mine sites, connected to very primal nature of life. Life took this world from volcanoes and acid oceans to what we have today. It connects me to hope that what we destroy may be undone, what we tear down can be rebuilt. Is this not beautiful?

We see story after story of toxic people, ugly people, people who are different from us somehow, male or female, Muslim or Christian, black or white. They tell me I should be afraid of these people, that they will change our way of life. I don’t watch enough TV to keep track of the people I am supposed to hate next, but that’s not what I see anyway. I see a man who has walked from Ethiopia to Pakistan after the military shot his brother, I see a woman who gives an incredible amount of time to those no one listens too, I see people afraid, in love, sad, happy, hurt, alone and in leading groups. How can I not feel connected to these people, they are like me. Are they not beautiful? How can I hate what is like me, that would be like hating myself and I know I am beautiful.

I don’t know how to connect people with the beauty around them yet, how to connect them with the feelings these things invoke. I see it in everything around me; I see it in buttons, power lines, raindrops, machinery, mathematics and more. I don’t know why I can see the connections in all these things but I hope one day I can teach others how to see more in the world around them. It’s really hard to hate something you feel connected to. I’ll work it out one day but for the moment all I can do is illuminate one beautiful thing at a time and hope others can see the connections I see. I have part of my definition of beauty now, it’s a start, one small step on my journey.

Image thanks to Jason Jenkins

Reason Should Rule, But Guard Thy Heart From Stone

We have all experienced those times when our emotions get away from us, the times we get more excited by something than we should, the breakup that takes longer to get over than is “normal”, a bubbling anger and frustration at seemingly little things. It’s something we start learning to control from the age of two, from the time our parents coach us as we kick and scream on the floor. Other times we find we aren’t as emotional as we expect ourselves to be, the new promotion you just can’t work up any enthusiasm about it, a first date that barely seems to excite you or a series or fortunate events that fly right past you with barely a glance. Psychologists call this emotional self-regulation, “the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable…”1

“The heart never takes the place of the head, but it can, and should obey it.”

St Augustine had this coined as “ordo amoris” the order of love. There is a natural order to the degree in which affections should be attached to every object and situation which is appropriate. That is you do not attach a deep abiding hatred to a stone nor do you consider your affections for another as trivial. This is where reason should and must step in. “The heart never takes the place of the head, but it can, and should obey it.”2

In today’s world some of us seem to have forgotten this lesson of old. Those who have trouble seem to have fallen into three categories – The immature, those unable to take responsibility for their feelings; the intellectuals, those who think feelings should be managed, dealt with and hidden from view, and finally the zombies, those who have numbed both heart and mind. It doesn’t need to be like this, we are meant to experience feeling in its entire glorious color, that’s why we have a heart. We are meant to judge whether those feelings are valid for the situation and act accordingly, that’s why we have our minds, and neither should be ignored, dulled or let reign uncontrolled.

We have a heart for a reason. It’s the part of us that makes life shine. When we love, laugh and live in the moment feelings brighten our way. When we find our passions feelings drive us to places we never thought we could go. When we lose and grieve feelings show us the importance we placed on those people we lost, they show us that we have a hole that needs filling. When we are hurt feelings show us the lessons we need to learn, when we are scared and afraid feelings show us the dragons we need to conquer and point the way forward to become greater than we were before. We need our heart, it’s important, without it there is neither reason nor point to life. We may as well be automatons repeating the same things over and over again.

Yet we have our mind for a reason, for reasoning. It’s the part that should tell the heart that losing 10 dollars is only annoying, not the end of the world. The mind is the side of us that, when the heart falls in love, looks to see if those affections are well placed. The side that understands the reasons behind grief, loss, fear, hurt and anger and either does something to fix these feelings or soothes the heart with whispers of the way things might be. The mind is the part of us that says any given feeling is appropriate, I’m allowed to feel the way I am because this is what life is all about. It’s our regulator for dealing with the outside world. It shouldn’t be forgotten when we are in the grips of strong emotion, nor should it be used to stir up emotion by overthinking or intellectualizing. When we see people who have let their heart rule, this is what we think, why can’t you use your mind to regulate your heart. Yet as everyone knows, sometimes that isn’t always as easy as it looks.

Reason should rule but not with an iron fist.

But guard thy heart from stone. Reason should rule but not with an iron fist. It should not ignore the heart and minimize the hearts feelings. That way leads to a world that is grey and lifeless, without wonder or joy. Years will be spent searching for happiness when the answer lays beating in your own chest. If it continues for long enough the heart stops, ignored for so long it has no reason to continue to beat. You can’t numb your heart of just one feeling; when you do you numb all your feelings. When your heart stops and turns to stone you become that robot, imitating life never really knowing why. If you ever come to the crossroads where you are faced with the choice of numbing the heart or feeling incredible pain, choose the pain, for if you can feel pain you can also feel the good things, things such as love, laughter and joy. They may not be evident at the time but they are there and ready to be felt, but only if you don’t numb the heart.

Practice finding “ordo amoris”, the order of love; all feelings are valid in and of themselves, but not all feelings are valid in intensity for the context you are in. Use your mind to show your heart the intensity it should be feeling if it is awry. Use your heart to show the mind the reason for living. Most of all use them both but do not let the heart rule.

Photo: Flickr/Eva Blue

1. Emotional Self Regulation
2. C.S Lewis, 1943, The Abolition of Man

Originally published at the Good Men Project

Photo: Flickr/Eva Blue

That Guy Who Dances

Image thanks to Bob Mcgahan Photography

That guy who dances, yes that one there, can you see him? He doesn’t hang out with us much anymore; he’s outgrown us you know. He started dancing one night, just up and went to lessons. We didn’t think much of it at first; he started missing the midweek pizza nights. That was OK; we were just hanging around anyway. We called him a few names, a bit of ribbing, laughed at him a little, but he just sort of smiled, that smile you have when you are keeping a big secret from someone, honestly his grin was huge.

What was he doing, he has two left feet

We asked him about this grin, his secret. He showed us a group photo of the people he danced with. Damn, there must have been twenty beautiful women and six guys. We all laughed at him again, what was he doing, he has two left feet, he is as nervous as hell around women, and honestly he wouldn’t stand a chance with women like that. He’d be hitting way above his league.

He started missing guy’s pub night, Friday night. He said he was social dancing now. We joked he must drink a keg or two to venture onto that floor but he replied with the strangest answer. “You can’t really dance when you drink.” It sounded all back to front to me except he never really drank much after that, just in case he had to dance. Who in the world needs to be ready to dance at a moment’s notice?

Before he quit our Saturday night meat market escapades he started doing more things decidedly out of character. He would be the first one on the dance floor and all the girls would follow him. He’s so smooth now, I don’t know how he does it. Every step on time, every sway flowing with the music like he didn’t even have to think about it. 20 women dancing with him and I swear if there had been a minister in the room they would have married him on the spot, yet he looked bored. He seemed to have given up the chase. We asked him why he didn’t ask for any of the girls numbers. He told us “They aren’t dancers, they don’t understand and they’re not …” He shrugged, he couldn’t find the words he wanted. We were all really worried about him now, he’s just our dorky mate. Six months back he would have thrown himself at any one of those girls for a little bit of attention.

But he stopped coming out with us on Saturday nights, Sunday nights too – game night. We hardly see him now. He drops by from time to time, always with stories from dancing. He doesn’t have much time for us anymore he says. We noticed he has 2000 friends on Facebook and we said he couldn’t possibly know all these people. But he does, he can tell us which girls he has danced with, which guys are the good dancers, we haven’t caught him out yet. It’s scary, how does anyone know 2000 people personally?

A couple of hundred of his friends decided to have a day dancing by the beach

I saw him a few months back, well his photo anyway. He was in the paper. A couple of hundred of his friends decided to have a day dancing by the beach and a local journalist snapped it up. It looked like they were all having so much fun. I saw him again a few weeks ago. He had won a local dance competition and he was on the early news. He looked so tall and confident on TV. I guess it’s true what they say that the camera adds ten centimeters. He doesn’t look at all like the guy we used to know.

We get asked about him by strangers sometimes. Women will walk up to us in the pub and ask us where our friend is, “He’s dreamy” they say. “You should dance with him” they tell us. As if! We aren’t gay. “He twirled and twirled us and then we were so close and moving it was like having sex with clothes on” they mention wistfully. We laugh and say they must be talking about someone else. For some reason our laugh always comes out a bit forced though.

That guy who dances, yes that one there, can you see him. He’s a friend of ours, we have known him a long time but we don’t know him anymore. He changed. He isn’t a dork anymore, he hardly drinks, he doesn’t watch footy or do any of the guy stuff anymore. He knows everyone too, whenever we go somewhere there is always someone he greets, a guy he claps on the back, or a beautiful girl he hugs and kisses and says he promised to dance with them later on. When we see him now we all feel like we are at our parents’ house, as if we are children in his presence. He has outgrown us I think, somewhere in the last two years he became a grown up. I think he just keeps in contact hoping one day we will grow up too.

He teaches a class these days, he dragged me along one night. So many beautiful girls in the class and most of the guys, well they are all the boyfriends being dragged along, they didn’t want to be there. All those girls and they all wanted to be held close and just dance, dance with me. I’m wondering why I hadn’t done this before; it’s so much easier to meet girls this way. I warned him I can’t dance at the start of class but he smiled and said I will by the end. And I could, just the basics, but it was so thrilling to dance in time with someone else. There is something … I’m not sure what it is but, well, I think I’ll come back.

Originally published at the Good Men Project

The Art Of Conversation

Image thanks to Getty Images

There is an art to conversation, a way of being in the moment which builds connection with those with whom you converse. It isn’t magic, nor does it rely on a cold and calculating formula, it is just a way of looking at the person in front of you and entwining yourself in their life. Everyone has a story, many stories. It doesn’t matter if it is a youth who swam eighty kilometers to the freedom of Guantanamo bay, a child bursting to tell someone she is about to have a brother or sister, a man who finds his passions at the age of forty, or even a lady who is struggling with life as her marriage falls apart; we all have stories. The art of conversation is finding those stories, both your own, and the person who sits in front of you. Because while you talk to that person, their stories should be the most important stories you have ever heard.

When you talk to someone they should be the most important person in the room.

They say a charismatic person will walk up to you and shake your hand and for five seconds you will feel like the most important person in the room. This isn’t a trick or a special gift, this is a skill, practiced and trained. That charismatic person at some point in their lives learnt a lesson, a lesson which is simple in its application. When you talk to someone they should be the most important person in the room. When the charismatic person shakes your hand you feel important because for five seconds their entire attention is focused on you, there is no time, there are no others in the room and there is no pressing matters on the mind other than you. You feel important because for five seconds you are important, the most important person in the world. Your importance shines through in the charismatic person’s gaze, their body language, indeed it shines through their entire bearing. It can come across as a spark, or an energy, to the conversation but I don’t believe this. I think we read people well enough to know when someone is genuinely interested in us. We read it in something as simple as when they say your name, because your name was important enough to remember. I don’t think it can’t be faked or mimicked either; it can only be done by believing that the person they are greeting is indeed the most important person in the world.

If you want to hear a person’s stories they are not always easily won. People want to believe they are important to the person they are talking to, that their stories will be heard, understood and accepted. So put away the phone, the thoughts of tomorrow, worries of another day and most of all put away the judgments of what you would do in their situation. Listen, just listen. Listen as if they are your parents dying last words, the Queen presenting you a knighthood or a romantic interest you are chasing whom you desperately want to understand. When someone can see they have your complete unbiased attention they feel safe, they feel like they can tell you the most amazing things that happened in their lives, and they will. When you focus you will hear stories of woe, tales of tribulations, epic adventures, victories won and lost, unbridled passions and most of all you will hear the stories that mean the most to them. To treat any story as less than this is to justify the reasons they had for not opening up to you in the first place.

Sometimes it can be hard to find the thread to a person’s stories, they are guarded and stories are only let out piece by piece, they are trying to gauge how you will react. They want you to pull the threads, it’s a test you see. They are judging your interest, they are judging how important you think they are. They are observing to see if they have your attention, to discern if you are going to judge them through the lens of your own perceptions. To pull the threads you have to ask questions, each thread is another page which must be turned and it can only be turned with interest in their story. Some pages may be stuck, they won’t be simply turned, and they require you to show you understand. They require that you show you have been through something similar, have had to make similar decisions or experienced similar events. Yet if you want to hear the book through and through the pages must be turned, you must pass their tests and show them they are important, you are interested and most of all you understand.

No one particularly cares how perfect your life is, they want to hear about the warts.

A conversation is two ways though and to a person who wants to tell you their story, they want to hear yours as well. Not the outline, not the condensed version but the real stories. The ones that are important to you. They want to know how you felt, what you experienced, what you went through and what you learnt. If you want a person to trust you with their stories then you must be able to trust them with yours. No one particularly cares how perfect your life is, they want to hear about the warts, the things that scared you, made you cry, made you burst with excitement, fall in love or the stories where you overcame your demons. A good conversation is about swapping tales, swapping stories from the trenches, lessons from the classroom of life or relating the random adventures life sometimes throws your way. Yet if you can’t put your heart on the line with these stories don’t expect the other person to do so either.

Conversation is an art. It’s about two people having the courage to put their hearts onto canvas and painting their murals in front of the other. It’s not about listening 60% of the time or some special skill some people are granted at birth, it’s about opening up to receive the stories you hear. It’s about considering them as precious gems to be cherished, a rare look into the inner life of the person you are talking to. Most people yearn to be understood, to be heard, to know the things they have done and felt are meaningful, but they need to be able to trust you as well. If you want a conversation that goes on for hours make that this person the most important person in your world, turn their pages and follow their story, most of all show them you understand with stories of your own.

Originally published at the Good Men Project