It’s Tuesday night, and I’m just home from a philosophy café. I have hosted these monthly gatherings since I started my philosophical counselling practice in 2002. This year, we’ve been generously offered space in the lovely village bookshop, after hours – a perfect setting for conversation.
We were thirteen this evening: some regulars, a couple of people who have been scarce for a while, and a few first-timers. Someone started by saying how appalled he was at Hillary Clinton’s televised reaction to the death of Muammar Gadaffi. Celebrating like a vindictive child who’s won a game of tiddlywinks! What have we come to?
Where did we go from there? The expectations we have of leaders: someone said she never expects anything from anyone, and we talked about that. The widespread contagion of corruption, neglect and irresponsibility across our society: as if anything’s okay if you can get away with it. How television affects us. Someone wondered about the equally (if differently) overwrought response to the death of Steve Jobs: Has no one ever said before that it’s good not to waste your time, or that you should do work that matters to you? Why is he suddenly Gandhi with gadgets? We talked about the ethics of responsibility, ubuntu and love, and how to create the conditions to support that. Someone said she’d been reading about ancient Britain, where there was just as much corruption, mayhem and blood. Is there no progress? someone sighed dispiritedly – and we all laughed. Then a stranger rapped on the window, gesturing urgently. There was a white Golf with its lights on, and he repeated the registration number twice for us before going on with his quest to find the owner. A practical contribution to our topic, I noted. We talked about anger in the face of injustice, the anger that comes from impotence, and the pleasures of road rage. The arrogance that lurks in a compulsion to fix the whole world: I’ve learned to take care of what I can and trust others to do the same. When I closed the session after ninety minutes, people gathered in twos and threes, still talking.
Last month, the conversation began with someone’s story of a suicide at her workplace, and how troubled she was by some of the reactions. What followed was just as wide-ranging and engaged as tonight.
But for me at least, the event itself is more exhilarating than the content. Each time, I approach it as a wager, or a leap of faith. We are immersed in a revolution of communication technologies, but our opportunities for real open candid conversation – with its virtues of spontaneity, generosity, intelligence, humour, daring and care – seem so few. Can a dozen strangers still talk together without an expert or facilitator, without a goal or agenda? I usually win the bet. This is what people can do together, naturally, if given the chance. Each time, I find that remarkable.