Small Talk

Pee Jae Smythe

A thick layer of snow has the delicious effect of muffling ambient noise: it brings one’s immediate surroundings into a self-contained domain by dampening far-off noises and obscuring all immediate sound—homogenizing each reverberation into either noise or echo. I love this effect. My enthusiasm is, in fact, so great that it spills onto paper. Snow prods hoods to go up, heads to bow down, and lingerers to hurry on. This cushion of isolation shields me from the small talk that I don’t want to engage in.

My least favorite form of small talk takes the shape of a long-lost roommate or friend. The person, who hasn’t seen me in two or three years often has relevant questions to ask: How are you? What are you doing now? Are you still majoring in that industry thing? Fine. Nothing much. No, I switched my major from industrial design to English a few years ago. The person is completely superfluous to my present life, and yet she forces her way in, attempting—although shallowly—to reforge a connection between us.

God is the embodiment of the principles that inspire small talk. Despite its inadequate superficiality, small talk seeks to establish connections between strangers. When all are creations of one being, there can be no strangers. God crushes the dream of a self-contained domain, and opens it up into a vast expanse filled with interconnected creatures. He has commanded us to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Often those “in need” are simply in need of rescue from the perceived emptiness of isolation. Although belief in heaven inspires heads to bow, the higher law commands us to linger and chat. Loneliness has a decidedly negative connotation within the context of religion.

My insulated hood magnifies the muffling, isolating effect of snow. It is wont to leave me alone with the crunch of my own footsteps. Other persons sound far away, their voices superceded by the crunching of their own feet. These sounds merely blend into my own to intensify the bliss of wallowing in loneliness: not solitude, but veritable loneliness. When I am lonely—when my heart aches from detachment—is when I feel closest to a supreme being. I believe we each have a little Catholic inside of us: some part that yearns for suffering in order to demonstrate true devotion. Someone parts the curtain of snow and asks me for the time. I awkwardly fumble for my cell phone and shortly satisfy his query. Then it rings.

Loneliness gives me a feeling of self-sufficiency. I trust only myself with my aches: I do not want another mourner to share in my special, self-imposed burden. I am told that self-sufficiency stands as a stumbling block to faith: the leader of my meetings once told me that the church is a social organization and that it is my duty to be social with other members. And yet, it is only after we have done all that we can do that grace steps in to compensate for our inadequacies. Even in this concept, we see that self-sufficiency is a pre-requisite to grace. After all that I can do.

The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith interprets Matthew 18: 8–9 to mean that the offending foot represents a friend who is trying to lead you astray. He then analyzes the offending hand to be a brother standing in the way of progression, while the eye becomes a beloved parent. These outside sources, according to Joseph, are stumbling blocks that must be overcome during your quest for spiritual perfection. Self-sufficiency is a step above small talk, it saves us from falling with those we have a connection with. For full transition, small talk must even be eradicated—“cast from” you. In the New Testament, Jesus insists that “if any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

Stomping the snow off my boots before entering my apartment, I tell my mother that I will have to call her back—my roommate is sobbing in the living room. The social commandment rings in my head: Comfort those that stand in need of comfort. Kim has spent a good portion of every day this week wallowing in depression, and each day I have sat with her. My self-sufficiency is not as complete as I try to convince my self it is. I have hours of homework to do. I have been neglecting my church volunteer positions. Kim’s sobs have entered into a rising crescendo. If thy hand or thy foot offend thee . . .

Snow serves as a metaphor in several venues—especially film and literature. In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, snow is part of the montage showing the transition from enemy to friend. Fargo’s wintry North Dakota landscape provides the backdrop for devastating decisions made by people attempting to transition into what they believe will be higher lives. Snow blankets Narnia as it awaits the return of its King. During winter, snow represents—for me—the limbic space between point A and point B: home and school, work and home, etc. In this space, I am free to wander alone with my thoughts. With hoods up and heads down, few stop to question why I do not beam at and greet every person along my path.

In church, I am told that life is itself a limbic space—a period of testing, a time when we try to lift ourselves from innocence and ignorance to exhalation. We strive to fulfill the Savior’s command to “be ye therefore perfect.” God knows all, and is perfect. Where does my pursuit of knowledge, my quest for perfection, go too far? A paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2001 states that “religious attendance rises sharply with education across individuals, but religious attendance declines sharply with education across denominations.” This paradoxical relationship is explained away: “education both increases the returns to social connection and reduces the extent of religious belief.” I find that the more I think about my religion, the deeper my belief becomes, while I still have little desire to engage in social situations. Will this suddenly reverse itself if I continue on my path for knowledge, my striving for personal perfection? In seeking perfection, there is a fine line between being perfect for and in God, and elevation of the self for the self’s own sake. The lower law is to keep commandments out of fear of punishment. The higher law is to keep commandments out of love for God and His law. I have not yet found where my version of the law falls: keeping commandments out of respect or love for one’s self.

Joseph Smith interpreted the scriptures to mean that we should cast away those relationships that impede our progress. I feel that comforting Kim is rapidly becoming mutually exclusive to my progress. My comforting does not comfort her, and only eats away my own time. Perhaps I am only grasping for justification of my decision to walk back to my room, closing the door firmly behind me. My headphones provide the same muffling, isolating effect as the snow outside.

Man cannot be saved on his own. The LDS religion specifically dictates that baptism, judgment, resurrection, and exaltation hinge on the presence of another party. Mormons love to repeat stories of Smith’s amiability—how he loved to play “pull the stick” with the children, how devoted he was to his friends, his family. Our earthly relationships have the potential to become divine relationships, and function in these exalting roles. However, these same relationships also can pose as possible stumbling blocks. Small talk is the superficial substitute for meaningful connection. Plato insists that substitutions blind us to the real, and allow us to settle for pallid mimicry. Connection takes effort—takes sacrifice. True connections are the foundations for divine and eternal relationships. Jesus commands us to abandon small talk. But even meaningful earthly connections can fall short of divinity: do we abandon them as well?

I dropped my cell phone somewhere along my path from home to school. It remained buried under the snow for an entire day. That night, I had to retrace my path until I found the phone. This time there was no point A—only goal 1. When I found the phone, I learned that I had missed three calls from home, two calls from my little brother, and one call from my cousin. My phone connects me with my family: that is its primary function, and the reason I hold it dear. It is easy to lose sight of goal 1 in the pursuit of point B. In fact, it is a commandment to abandon goal 1 in order to become a disciple of Christ. Perfection is point B.

In many religions, earthly rituals are requisite for eternal bliss. Most Christian religions require baptism as a minimum entry fee to the organization. They also often have a set of standards you must meet before being deemed fit personnel. Our rituals are earthly substitutes for a higher way of life. However, unlike small talk, rituals are full of symbolic beauty—meant to direct your mind’s eye to the Father, not just to another way of life. For Aristotle, mimesis is a constructive act: our substitutions serve to actually create reality, and are thus the highest form of art.

Snow is a symbol of purity, its whiteness easily tainted by damaging influences. It represents a period of transition. For many—even those who live in warmer climates—it is the embodiment of Christmas: a celebration of birth during the death of an old year, a symbol of new life when all else lies fallow. Wading through the snow is a ritual for me, performed sporadically at the whim of prevailing weather conditions. Perhaps it is merely an inadequately superficial mimicry of real transition. Perhaps it only gives me a cheap illusion of thoughtful loneliness. And yet that delightful crunch underfoot, that veiling coat over the world will never cease to be beautiful to me.