I had coffee with an old camp counselor the week before I began Yale. He warned me to watch out for emotional one-night stands. To be wary of opening up too quickly, because this was college and it was new and to still be talking at four in the morning gestured towards something deep. Stories, he reminded me, are sacred. They should be treated with respect. To invite somebody to bare his or her soul is to accept a certain amount of responsibility.
We walk through a world where to be guarded with words is cause for suspicion — who is the holier-than-thou friend who won’t gossip? The prude who doesn’t share sex stories? The student silent in section? We are suspicious of the reticent. To casually share personal information is to be friendly, fun, carefree. Look how comfortable I am with myself! And with you! We are like the professor who curses in class to let you know he or she is still cool.
But sharing an intimate truth is no shortcut to true intimacy. Baring all does not equal vulnerability. The notion that we should all be comfortable sharing and hearing all sorts of intimate details about one another cheapens the power of words. It creates an environment where to make anybody else uncomfortable, to probe their stories or call their opinions to account, is to be rude. To be shocked — to not take everything with a shrug — is to be unsophisticated.
I want to have more vulnerable and uncomfortable conversations. Talking salacious stories is fine, but that’s not the glue of long-term friendships. Such talk no more builds true closeness than a physical one-night stand. Yet it is too often mistaken for the real deal.
There are stories I have told and regretted the telling. There are beliefs and opinions I have never thought to share because they were still half-formed, vague and wide, and who knows what it is we really believe anyway? There were times I hurt family and friends by sharing stories that were not mine to tell, used them as social currency. But how do we find ourselves if not by throwing a bucket of words against the wall and seeing what image they leave? We develop friends who can interpret the inkblot of our lives over and over again until they and we can speak with some truth. Like the student in section who actually did the reading and can share more than their first impression of the text.
This week, the Yale Chaplain’s Office is hosting a series of events known as SOUL week, a dressed up title for an annual event that celebrates religious life on campus and promotes discussion. Talking about God is a lot more awkward than talking about sex, and religion is perhaps the topic least open to probing on campus. My vegetarian friends, for example, are asked all the time to justify their dietary choices. But if I say I keep kosher, the table clams up; nobody tries to push a burger on me or ask if I’ve ever thought about how that might inconvenience others. To ask questions about religious practice is considered intolerant. I don’t know why. Maybe my secular friends are embarrassed, assuming I would have no answer that can satisfy them. Maybe they’re afraid I’ll invite them to synagogue or to Bible study. Maybe they think they will offend me by asking, as if one question would topple the shaky ground on which I build my religious practice.
Ask. Hold me, and hold others, to a standard of satisfaction when you hear the answer. Let us probe one another’s beliefs; stick around not just for the night, but for the long haul. Amazing things happen when people are uncomfortable, when people are asked to take their ideas to the limit and to stand by them. If you’re not interested, that’s fine. But if you are going to ask somebody a question — about religion, a political belief, an opinion — then consider really asking and taking on the responsibility of another soul. It can be better than a one-night stand.
Shira Telushkin is a senior in Pierson College. Her columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.