Parallel Monologues

Back in the 80s, in an episode of the TV show ‘Greatest American Hero,” the hero and high school teacher, Ralph Hinkley, and the FBI agent, Bill Maxwell, were walking along the beach talking about the huge and growing problem of drugs. For me, it was one of the best depictions of the art of conversation – or lack thereof – I’ve ever seen. Bill saw drugs from the perspective of crime – in other words, catch ’em and put ’em all in prison – while Ralph saw the problem in terms of the young lives drawn off course and lost to potential – in other words, rescue them. The fascinating thing was observing their sentences running parallel to one another but never intersecting – though they were together and talking about the same thing at the same time, at no time did they ever actually meet in conversation.

In April Oprah had a guest on her show who put a name to this; he called this syndrome parallel monologues. What a great term – parallel monologues – two people carrying on monologues simultaneously with neither really hearing or even acknowledging the content of the other’s words. No change can be effected in lives or perspective because no true communication ever occurred between them.

Parallel monologues may not only have an impact on our one-on-one conversations with friends and acquaintances, but may be one of the biggest dilemmas we face in our world today. We are faced with so many problems in our world – in business where corporate greed and the bottom line trump people issues every time, in families where divorce and latch-key kids have almost become the norm in a world described by a similar phrase [at least to my ears] to parallel monologues – serial monogamy – in government where the direst economic situation we’ve faced for most of our lifetimes is upon us and our politicians still can’t stop spending billions of dollars on silly things – even in the name of stimulating our economy.

A few days ago, I read an opinion piece in the Oklahoma Gazette on the right to life/choice issue in which the writer called the issue “black and white” – between a woman and her body and the health insurance/medical community only. I was so struck by that label that I finally wrote a post on my blog site in response to it. This complex issue is anything but black and white – nothing with such financial, emotional, medical, relational and spiritual ramifications could possibly be labeled black and white, particularly when trying to include the points of view of the mother, the father, the grandparents, the child and society. In my post I tried to look at all the possible ramifications (though briefly, of course – it was an Internet blog). Someone apparently read my post and sent a comment that said something to the effect of, “pregnancy is a time of joy for the mother, and prenatal health and vitamins are very important.” Though I would say her statement is true most of the time; in this instance – based on the subject matter of my blog – her comment was an illustration of parallel monologues – she was responding out of her own experience without regard to anyone’s else’s experience.

We’ve likely all participated in those parallel monologues. For example, the DHS attorney telling an absent father he has an obligation to provide financial support for his children and his response is something like “ain’t no way that ‘expletive deleted’ is getting’ a dime out of me.”

In Toastmasters, evaluations are a way of getting immediate feedback on our presentations; those evaluations aren’t designed to be conversations and so can’t truly be parallel monologues, but I do believe there should be some evidence of at least attempting to develop listening skills. However, I couldn’t count the number of times evaluations of my speeches have included comments on content that made me wonder whose speech they were evaluating because it certainly had little relevance to the one I had just given.

Although I think this is important and I’ve given it some thought, it isn’t an area I’ve tried to solve on a global basis so I don’t know what the answer is, but I can, off the top of my head, suggest a few beginning changes to try to develop better communication skills:

  • Actually pay attention to what people are saying, instead of formulating your response during their discourse;
  • Investigate some of those areas of gray on issues – actually think through as many possibilities as you can – instead of just looking for support for your own position;
  • Reflect on/think about things you’ve heard or seen in sermons, speeches, movies, songs or books. Ken Gire in his book “The Reflective Life” provided a sample page to record your thoughts. The sections of the reflective sheet include Reading the Moment, which is the place for you to write the specific thing you saw or heard or felt. Reflecting on the Moment is the place where you record what you thought or researched. Responding to the Moment is the place where you set goals and begin to allow change or growth in your life because of this experience.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.” Just think how much we could learn and grow if we just followed his example and thought – even once a month or so.

The River of Life

I was listening to Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem entitled Die Moldau about a river running from the mountaintop down through Prague and eventually to the sea. I have always been moved by the melodic beauty of the song but on that day I just sat and let the beauty of the music wash over me as I experienced the music of the river as metaphoric truth – the truth that our lives resemble a melody.


Listen as Smetana creates his story musically: the Moldau begins as two little springs in the mountain, bubbling and trickling, join together to create a living, moving, growing river. Soon the bubbling develops a voice – a beginning melody, not totally defined, that winds its way down the mountain. Every time the river goes by a city or village, the music and activities of the city hide the melody of the river; then as it gets beyond the activities, the bubble begins again and the melodic song returns. As the river continues on, the rocks in the river create an area of rapids and the melody’s place is taken over by tension and rolling timpani and clashing cymbals. Of course, it’s exciting, and has its own kind of beauty, but it’s not the melody. As the rapids dissipate, the rolling bubble is heard again and its melody erupts in a joyous song. Finally the river gets quieter and quieter, more and more at peace as it approaches the end of its journey – to meet and join with the sea. As the sea rolls in and the river rolls out they meet and the river is united with the whole body of water in a great and satisfying clash of cymbals.

That’s the way it is with life and with us. We, too, have a voice – a special melody that is our own. But sometimes a loved one, or a job, a crisis or a national calamity comes along and our voice gets hidden in the circumstance – and we’re left with just a nagging sense that something is missing. My mother expressed what was missing for her when she talked about remarrying after my father’s death. Her new husband asked her, “Why do you love me?” and she said, “Oh, that’s easy; because you listen to me.” It is such a deep need within us to be heard and yet sometimes the very voice with which we speak isn’t even our own voice – it is the voice of all the people and responsibilities and circumstances around us.

I read a book once entitled, “Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You?” It’s a book you don’t have to read – just spend a little time with the title and you’ll know that’s what happens to our melody as we wend our way along the river of life. We give away little bits and pieces of our song – one of life’s barters that takes a heavy toll on who we were created to be – in fact, for many of us, our song may be completely covered over. As Norman Cousins said, “The tragedy of life is not in the fact of death, but in what dies inside of us while we live.”

Another song flowed into my mind from the Gaither musical, Alleluia, A Praise Gathering. The musically accompanied narration depicts the life of Jesus and Christianity as a song – a melody – as the narrator tells us, “It was a … simple lovely song for every man.  Right from the first, some tried to ignore it.  They said, ‘There’s no song!  It simply doesn’t exist.’  Others just tried to change the tune.  They made laws to stop it.  Armies marched against it.   They killed some who sang the song.  They screamed at it in fury, they tried to drown it out.  Finally they nailed that song to a tree.  They said to themselves, ‘There . . . that should take care of that.’” Then a subtle ding, ding, ding, ding, ding grows audibly – the melody isn’t dead – they couldn’t kill the song – the Song Goes On!

There it is again – the truth of life as a melody and not just any melody – your melody. Everyone of us, at one time or another, like the river, has allowed activities or people around us to drown out our song – so much so that at times we may not even remember our own melody. In forgetting our melody, we may hear someone else’s song and think, ‘that’s a pretty song.” For example, I watched a 17-year baritone practicing a solo – the last note was just too low for him. He tried and tried and it just wasn’t there. Finally, he decided to have the choir director, a bass, sit on the front pew with a microphone and when David got to the very last note, George picked up the microphone and sang the low note. But that just won’t do – it has to be our song. I have my melody and you have yours. Make your own kind of music. As Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil said, “Even if nobody else sings along.”

In this river of life, your mission is to uncover your song (not discover it, because it’s been there all along) and once you uncover it, sing it for all you’re worth. When the river of life joins with the sea of eternity – the sea will not be complete without my melody or without yours.

In the Moment

The police tell us, to avoid the risk of becoming a crime victim, we need to be aware of where we are – know where you’re going, keep your purse and packages held securely, have a mental plan in place of where to go for protection. In books from business, to the personal, to the sacred with such titles as “The Power of Full Engagement,” “Be Here Now,” and “The Sacrament of the Present Moment,” we are encouraged to live moment by moment in full awareness.

How many of you have experienced driving someplace and all of a sudden it dawns on you, you can’t remember the specifics of the driving process. Your mind was somewhere else the majority of the drive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to say, “Thank you, God, that I’ve arrived at my destination safely because I certainly wasn’t paying enough attention to have gotten me here on my own.” This is so universal, I assume a 100% response to some similar experience.

Because I apparently live way too much of my life on autopilot, I’ve thought about people who perhaps live more in the present moment than I do and I have extrapolated some keys for living a more aware life. My example is primarily my daughter in a recent shared experience. I wanted to make a trip to the Joplin area for research on a novel I’m writing based on genealogical truth. I wanted pictures in my head to help me visualize the place. I asked Kay if she would like to go with me and she agreed. You need to know, it she hadn’t gone, I would have just hopped in the car the next morning with camera and paper and been back that night. Kay made me make a plan for how to best utilize the time so we spent four fully planned days and reaped benefits I would never have expected. Addresses and property owned from probate files from courthouse records, newspaper articles on the wedding of my grandfather and grandmother as well as a picture of life in the community in 1900 from the genealogical society, and four pages from the library archives of front page news of my great grandfather’s death, services and business community reaction. The information we got allowed us to take pictures of actual home sites and business in multiple cities, as well as photos from visits to their grave sites. We saw countryside and beautiful scenery to incorporate in my novel, but the result was purposeful rather than random, due almost exclusively to my daughter’s ability to live life with awareness.

My great-grandfather's store and home lot next door.

My great-grandfather's store and home lot next door.

Here are my conclusions from the experience:

First, as Stephen Covey said, “begin with the end in mind.” Kay knew what information she had as well as some of the holes she would like to fill in and she had a working knowledge of possible places to go to get answers.

Make a plan – both broad based and specific. My plan was only broad based, but Kay’s included the specific and it was the specific that netted the best results. Keep the whole picture in your mind – if not, you may miss pieces that would fit that you weren’t looking for in the moment.

Stay open to the spontaneous and serendipitous. All of the newspaper articles were serendipitous. Reading the article my grandmother wrote to put in the newspaper about her leaving Missouri to come to Oklahoma to get married was totally unexpected and a great pleasure. It was the taking the time to read newspaper archives that netted that great benefit.

My grandmother's 1902 marriage announcement.

My grandmother's 1902 marriage announcement.

Keep all your senses open – God gave them so use them. Remember there’s more than just the surface to the senses – explore the possible meanings to the sensory input – ask the 5 journalist questions – who, what, when, where and how and allow your mind free reign to explore the answers.

Bring all your education, experience, and skill to the moment – all can be useful. Kay is a librarian and she utilized all those in the service of this trip. She’s also a manager and she used her ability to delegate, plan and implement the details as well as to integrate the information we got into the whole of her research. In addition, she’s also a daughter, wife and mother and she brought all of those experiences and responsibilities with her to maximize the experience in terms of the research as well as relationship building.

Enjoy the moment – if life is just a task to be gotten out of the way, what’s the point?

The Land of the Free – Home of the Brave

The last line of our National Anthem that we sing at sports events and for patriotic occasions says, “…O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It’s true, we have so many freedoms that have been won by so many brave people who were willing to sacrifice lives to that end. But sometimes I wonder what I have done personally with my freedoms and have I, in fact, been brave in exercising them, particularly my freedom to be me.

In the book, Leading Out Loud, Terry Pearce says, “…’I called Gary’s house to thank him, and connected with an answering machine. The message was, “Hi, this is Gary, and this is not an answering machine, it is a questioning machine! The two questions are ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you want?’” then there was a pause and the message went on, “and if you think those are trivial questions, consider that 95 percent of the population goes through life and never answers either one!”

That hits too close to home with me. At some level, I know who I am – Donna Brown, divorced mother of two and grandmother of three; Christian, self-employed Realtor and small business owner who struggles financially, singer/musician, Toastmaster. But those are mostly roles I play.

And then comes the even bigger question for me – what do I want? Probably for most of us, the first ideas that pop into our minds are things: bigger house, bigger and/or newer car; more money, clothes, furniture, European vacation. But I think we all know that things don’t satisfy us for very long. Just about as soon as we buy that thing we’ve been dreaming of and saving for, a “new and improved” model hits the shelves and we have to start all over again. But if I could really have what I WANT, what would that be?

Many years ago, the Christian humorist, Grady Nutt, wrote a little book called “Being Me.” He wrote it for teens during those insecure years when they don’t know yet who they are and he called on them to not yield their uniqueness to conformity. There is an enormous pressure to “fit in,” to “not rock the boat” or “make waves.” And that pressure doesn’t dissipate after high school. There is the pressure to fit the mold in relationships and in jobs and in organizations.

But remember, this is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” Why should I stuff myself in the mold of everyone else when I was created to be me? No one else can be me; if I’m not me, there won’t be a me. And if you’re not you, there won’t be a you.

In Psalm 139:13-14 the Psalmist says to God,

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…

And as Ethel Waters said, “I know I’m somebody, ‘cause God don’t make no junk.”

I did a contest speech called “The River of Life” in which I encouraged people to “sing their own song” and “make their own kind of music,” to, in fact, be themselves and I won three levels of contests with that speech. After all that encouraging others to be themselves (and feeling confident they got the message) a woman who heard the speech asked me to work with her as she prepared a contest speech. Her stated reason – because she wanted to be just like me. Many of us think there is a pattern we can follow or a mold we can fit into and success or acceptance will follow.

Unfortunately, there is no mold to be successful as yourself and you may have to exercise both your bravery and your freedom to accomplish being fully yourself.

In a conversation with my brother and niece, I commented that my brother used to sound a lot like Elvis when he sang. My niece said to her Dad, “Gee, why didn’t you keep practicing – you could have gone to Las Vegas and made it big as an Elvis impersonator.” My theory is, if he had WANTED it, he might have become one of those single-named performers – an original Mickey rather than an Elvis impersonator!

I received an email with an Oscar Wilde quote on it that first made me laugh and then I had to stop and think about it. He said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Obviously, everyone we come into contact with makes an impact on us and changes us in some way and clearly we want to be knowledgeable of other thoughts and opinions than our own, but only if I know who I am and what I want, will I emerge from these contacts still being me.

In this “land of the free and the home of the brave,” who are you, what do you really want, what do you really have to offer, what do you really hope for? Understanding your needs and wants and skills is critical to navigating your way from where you are to where you want to be. You are unique – distinctive – plan to leave some evidence on this planet that you have been here. What a gift you are! Exercise your bravery and your freedom and share the gift of you with the rest of the world rather than being merely a replica of everyone else. Be strong! Be brave! Be free! Be yourself!