Lessons from the kids' table
Family gatherings frequently bring together different generations. A classic way of managing limited space and adult conversation is to have a "kids' table" for the children old enough to feed themselves. The "kids' table" has become a metaphor for something proximate but separate.
My home has traditional room layout. Neither the kitchen nor the dining room is able to accommodate more than 10 people eating comfortably. As a result, there needs to be a group gathered in the kitchen and in the dining room. By the time my grandchildren reached grade school, they no longer appreciated being separated from the adult conversation. To solve this holiday dilemma, we started a lottery process. Everyone draws a D(ining Room) or K(itchen) from a basket or bowl prior to sitting down for the meal. This creates an interesting dynamic. Couples may end up being separated and children frequently end up sitting in a different room from their parents. On the other hand, it has been an interesting lesson in openness, curiosity, flexibility and trust. The reality is that conversations differ depending upon who is at the table.
I began to notice that conversations can take a couple of different paths. The most delightful is to engage the "kid" in conversation with honest curiosity and without polite pretense. The most common path is to ignore the "kid" at the table and to talk above or around them. A conversation with pretense might go something like this:
Conversation initiator, "Mary, how is school? What grade are you in now?"
Mary responds, "OK … third grade."
Conversation initiator, "I remember when …" or "when I was your age …"
Now the conversation is no longer about Mary and Mary's experience; it is back to the conversation initiator. This pattern of conversation happens whether Mary is 8, 18 or 28. The conversation initiator was being polite, but conversation with someone who is different is difficult and requires remaining open and curious. It takes time and, frequently, it takes patience.
I have been reflecting upon this type of conversational exchange in relationship to recent meetings, conferences and gatherings of associates and religious. As human beings, we are most comfortable around those who are the same as us. We draw our circles around age, gender, vocation, vows, education, occupation or role, theology, politics and so forth. We don't intend to have our circle be exclusive, but we are just more comfortable with those who are like us. We don't see our circles as exclusive, but as opportunities for freer flowing and uninhibited conversation. As an introvert, I am all in favor of these circles. I find it challenging to be "at the table" with people I do not know or to be "different" from the majority. Despite this discomfort, I also see how restrictive the circles can be even if that is not the intent.
At a recent meeting, I was talking with a lay associate who is in that coveted millennial age group. She confided in me how difficult it is to take on responsibility within her congregation and/or the associate movement. She told me that she is frequently invited to participate, but when she offers an idea, she is told that she doesn't have enough experience, or that it had been tried 30 years ago, or that it is not way we do things around here. Frequently, the subject is simply changed as if she hadn't spoken. I heard this same type of story from young, vowed men and women at the recent Religious Formation Congress.
Although it was decades ago, I remember being told the same thing when I was in my 20s and 30s. I wondered then, as I do now, how does one get experience if she is never given the opportunity? How do we learn to engage in conversation if we are not at the same table? How do we learn to listen if we are not listened to? How do we learn and grow if we don't broaden our circles … at least on occasion?
At a recent conference, I experienced the value of honest curiosity. As is common, the table members introduced themselves. Seven of the eight people at the table began, I am (name), a sister of (congregation), I am the (role/job title). When I introduced myself I said, I am Jeanne Connolly, the director of charism and mission with the Wheaton Franciscans, I am not a sister, I am a Covenant Companion/Associate with the Wheaton Franciscans. I was "different." When the introductions were complete, one of the table members said, "Jeanne, I don't want to put you on the spot, but would you be willing to share more about your role with your community?" The question was inviting, open and honest. It allowed me to respond as I was comfortable. It expanded the circle of our common commitment to sharing the Gospel life.
My experience with the "kids' table" is teaching me to more consciously broaden my circles and to listen to others with freshness, curiosity, compassion and sensitivity, and without feeling the need to fix, advise or set straight. If my desire is to share the Gospel life with others, then I must learn to hear and see with different eyes and ears despite the discomfort, time and patience it takes. I am looking forward to the next table gathering. What has been your experience of being the "kid" or the "other" at the table?
[Jeanne Connolly has been a Covenant Companion (or Associate) with the Wheaton Franciscans in Wheaton, Illinois, for more than 22 years, and has served as their director of charism and mission since 2007. Jeanne also offers consulting services and workshops through J.M. Connolly Consulting. Currently, she serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the North American Conference of Associates and Religious (NACAR) and as the president of the Siena Retreat Center board of directors in Racine, Wisconsin.]