This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Dear Charlotte, which tells the winding story of the triumph and folly of forever trying to better yourself. This letter is from the chapter on "Dealing with Others".
I really need to stop talking so much. I get especially talkative around quiet people. I feel horrible for my cousin Ben, because I can tell he wants to hang out more, but every time we do, I snow him over with ideas or advice. I remember a couple years ago, we were in Japan having some snacks at a restaurant, and as he stood up to leave, I kept on talking. When he browsed the menu of a dessert place nearby, I kept on talking. When he sat down to order food, I kept on talking. I had a glimmer of awareness the whole time that I was hogging the conversation, but I just couldn't stop it. I was compelled to make my points and finish my thoughts.
A few weeks ago, I knew Ben would be in town soon for winter break, and so I didn't want to fall into the same pattern. So I had a cognitive therapy1 session where I tried to identify what beliefs were causing me to be so loquacious. I struggled for about thirty minutes, staring at a blank text document. Finally, it hit me. I feel like I always need to define everything. I can't stand chaos or disorder, and so I wrap ideas, people, and situations into words, and then I share those words with others.
When I came to this conclusion, I stood up in my chair. "That's it," I thought to myself, "I just need to stop being attached to order." Since then, I've been telling myself, "Phil, you don't need to figure everything out. Leave things unanswered."
I met up with Ben and we took a long drive to Joshua Tree to do some rock climbing. The joshua trees themselves are funky looking things. They look like they're either from the Jurassic era or another planet. I was much quieter than usual on this drive, and so I had more space to watch these trees rifle through my field-of-view. Some of the silences became awkward, but then Ben opened up and volunteered. At times he talked about his life in a rhetorical sense. For example, he asked me philosophical questions about dating and relationships. This begged me to weigh in, but I didn't. I told myself, "You know what, I don't need to have the answer to everything." Dissatisfied with my reticence, he opened up some more, talking about specific challenges with his girlfriend, and I was astonished by this. I had never heard him open up like this before.
Things were going swimmingly, I thought, but then I had a sinking feeling. "Why am I coaching myself to have the ideal conversation with my cousin?" Ben and I are supposed to be equals, and yet I was doing all this work to make it work. I then quickly told myself to stop thinking about my epiphany, to stop thinking about talkativeness and order and chaos and how brilliant I was for getting Ben to open up.
I told myself to just let things be, and soon enough I brought down the hammer of my advice. I pulled out the wool blanket of my grand philosophies, and in response, he retreated back into his shell. As we got out of the car, I kept on talking. As he went to the counter to rent rock climbing gear, I kept on talking. As we packed the crash pads and trail maps into the trunk, I kept on talking. In other words, everything returned back to normal, except this time, I was at peace with it.
1 Earlier that year, I got into cognitive therapy, which involves identifying the underlying beliefs that distort your worldview. I discuss this further in "The Pursuit of Happiness" chapter.