I have a friend who likes to experiment with new ways of beginning a conversation. He’s kind of forced into this because he works with homeless teenagers in the downtown district of a large city where it’s hard to start a conversation with “How are you?” when the unpleasant answer kind of screams in your face without anything being said.
There are ways in which we say hello to people that indicate if we intend on engaging them in conversation or are just politely dismissing them. I think first we have to ask ourselves if we really care. If you really care about the answer, you are probably not going to ask someone “How are you?” Maybe it will be a version of the familiar phrase, like “How are you, really?” or maybe it will be something else. My friend has a question to suggest: “What has brought you life today?”
Now that will stop you in your tracks. What made you sit up and take notice of the fact that you are really alive? What made your heart beat faster? What got your attention? Something in the news? A God moment? A phone call from a loved one? A brush with death? What made you know you were alive today?
It’s a valid question that cuts through much of our mundane existence. If you can go through an entire day without coming up with anything that made you feel alive, it doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t anything; it just means you didn’t notice it. That’s why the question is a good one. It forces us to draw something of value out of our experience.
Yesterday, what brought me life was a conversation over lunch with a new friend. This is a person whose life and family have so far seemed so perfect, almost to the point of bringing up jealousy in me. Yesterday, I found out something about him that brought me life because it clearly wasn’t perfect. It was a huge struggle he’d lived with for fifteen years that I knew nothing about. Am I rejoicing that this person “came down” in my eyes? No. I am rejoicing that he became human, and because his struggle touches a similar one I have at a number of levels, and he is further along than I am in mine — far enough to have experienced some redemption — his story brought me life and hope.
Actually, “What has brought you life today?” is more of an end-of-the-day question, and for those of you who are reading this first thing in the morning, a slight adjustment may need to be made. You might want to think about living today in such a way as to have an answer to that question later on. You might want to plan on making some things happen that you know would bring you life, like that phone call
to someone you love, for instance. In other words: make life happen, don’t just let it pass by in front of you.
And then think about using this kind of opener on someone else. Just be sure you are awake and alert and willing to spend some time when you do, because chances are you will get a real answer that will demand engagement. As my friend who started this all says: “I want you to explore for yourself what brings others to life. I want you to open your canned conversation starters and find ways to step into others’ lives, not around them.”