Last night I went over to my friend Barbara Callahan’s house to talk about how to have hard conversations in the midst of immense uncertainty. Barbara has lived the last four years of her life with a diagnosis of cancer, so I thought there’s no better person to chat with about this topic… Oh, she’s also a psychoanalyst that focuses on how to have breakthrough conversations between parents and children or between spouses.
To situate you, it was the night after the election we had watched together the night before. We are still are counting votes and we have no real understanding of how well those results will hold up, whether because of court rulings or something we haven’t foreseen yet. One thing that was certain was uncertainty.
Our decision to talk under the stars was predicated by COVID-19, which suggested a good talk inside… might not be wise. I started by asking her why she thought I’d suggested talking while stargazing. “Well, I think you thought it was a good place to go because it’s nature, and because it’s quiet, and because there are not going to be any intrusions. So it’s a safe space.” It was a good answer. A quiet and open and safe space leads to better conversations. Just a moment of silence can help us calibrate and get access to a different part of our brain’s right and left hemispheres so that our minds are completely in the conversation.
“This kind of silence, meditation, moments in nature, etc., lowers the drawbridge between the hemispheres. Or the more neuroscientific way of describing it is that it starts to add cells across the corpus callosum. I don’t know if you know about the studies that the Dalai Lama allowed to be done on his monks? You’ll love this, he allowed them to go under fMRI machines so that researchers could watch their brains as they meditated. And the miraculous thing that they discovered is that they could measure the corpus callosum and predict how many years the monk had been meditating. So as you meditate, or as you do this silent work, it allows the drawbridge (of the brain) to go down or cells to be laid down across the corpus callosum. That means the pathway between the two hemispheres gets easier to cross and way bigger, more like a superhighway and less like a path. And of course, generally speaking, in men, the corpus callosum is a little thinner than it is in women.”
Using silence and reflection, even just a little bit of it can allow us the chance to recalibrate our thinking so we’re better prepared to have hard conversations in hard times. Let’s be clear we dread uncertain outcomes. Scientific studies on certainty suggest that even when we’re certain that a bad thing will happen to us we feel less anxious than if we are unsure a bad thing will happen to us. Subjects who are told “you will definitely be receiving an electric shock and then received one” scored lower on pain and agitation indexes than subjects who were told “It is probable you will get an electric shock and only ended up receiving one 50 percent of the time.”
So here we were in this moment of great uncertainty, she herself living in great uncertainty, with a virus raging around us that necessitated an outdoor conversation. So why, really, had it occurred to me that we should talk outside under the stars?
As a side note, as a child, stars terrified me. The idea that they were in essence uncountable made me feel lost, alone, and very, very, mortal. Ironically that’s part of why I chose to stargaze while we talked. So, when Barbara gave me her thoughts on why to sit outside under stars, I was thankful for the answer, but suggested an entirely different one. As I said to Barbara:
“I thought we should go sit and look at the stars because we’re in a really uncertain moment with a lot of ambiguity where people are out there counting like crazy. I thought it would be worthwhile for you and I to be faced with infinity, like — more things than we could ever count. So that it might remind us that, yes, there are these horrible numbers that are looming over our heads right now. But it’s small in comparison to what’s above our heads.”
That wasn’t just my off-the-cuff response; it was in fact based on the science behind awe. The idea that when we look out over a vista, say the ocean or a rolling landscape, or stare out at the universe, it triggers a sense of emotional expansion. This expansiveness in turn feeds its way into our conversation. It one-ups silence because now we’re fully in all parts of our brain. We’re awestruck. All cylinders are firing.
I knew this conversation tool worked because in the middle of March, when my husband and I were cooped on our farm, we found ourselves in harder and harder conversations. One day I suggested we end the evening not in debate but in a star meditation. Just 10 minutes of sitting in the Adirondack chairs on our front porch in the frigid cold looking up at the stars and telling each other what we were seeing. It significantly shifted the dynamic in our relationship over just a couple days. When I told Barbara about those conversations she paused, breathed in, and said: “As you started to talk about going out with David to look at the stars, I could feel my chest settle. I could feel myself go down. It’s lovely and it’s very comforting, right? So whether it’s a metaphor for nature or whether it’s a metaphor for looking outside ourselves or outside this country or to the whole world or to the whole population, it’s very comforting.”
So stop hyperventilating, stop trying to wedge a conversation in between frantic looking at your phone, the news, social media. The count is happening and it will continue to happen. When the count is over the court proceedings will start, and while they start there will be all kinds of institutions challenging the count. We will be living in uncertainty for a while. Put down the phone, turn off the T.V., and take your loved ones outside and just talk and stare at the stars. I promise you’ll feel better.