I'm giving a talk later this week to some college students in Joliet. It's one installment in a series of "big questions"--all the usual cosmic suspects. Mine is "Can't We All Get Along?" And I'm having a hard time with it.
I came to the realization this morning that this week's perplexity is only the most recent example of a common (not quite universal) trend in my communication: I get about 75 percent of the way to where I think the topic needs to wind up. If the people I'm talking to can't provide the remaining 25 percent, then they're going to be frustrated, and I'm going to look like an idiot.
I think that's why I prefer the smaller venue to the larger venue. There's better opportunity for interaction, and so there's more opportunity to add the group's 25 percent into the mix, and consequently less likelihood that I'm going to leave this place looking like an idiot.
This has been a growing awareness for me; the big big stage has always had its appeal, and the big big crowd is an easy barometer of success--both for the speaker and the gathering place. There are also undeniable values to large gatherings--the energy of the crowd can lower some people's defenses but also protect the anxious; you can be either anonymous or social in a large gathering in ways that simply aren't possible in a small setting; there's a galvanizing effect in one message heard by hundreds, even thousands, whereas the same message among dozens or handfuls sounds more tentative, less assured.
But small settings have their own appeals, their own strengths, as well. To take my talk as an example, the idea of getting along is a theoretical question for a crowd of thousands, but it's real and pressing, even urgent, to a group of people who know each other--who know each other's strengths and weaknesses, charms and grating habits. And a large crowd dispersing is less likely to continue to process the question together, more likely to let it remain conceptual. Smaller groups are already stuck with one another, and so they stick together, and so the ideas they process together stick.
Maybe I'm biased. I'm small myself, actually; one of my permanent memories is of my eighth-grade teacher pointing that out to me and my parents, and as the years pass, I grow less and less confident of an imminent growth spurt. But also, as the years pass, I'm less intimidated by the big big stuff. My namesake King David of Israel, I occasionally remind myself, was a little guy, and he killed a giant and out-strategized a king and gathered himself a kingdom. And Jesus of Nazareth surrounded himself with a little community of relatively powerless people, and look what came of that.
So I'm hoping for a smallish group this week--or, if not a smallish group, then at least a smallish ethic. I'm hoping that we can get small even as we tackle a big question. And I'm hoping that the 25 percent my conversation partners bring to the table will lead to some real strategies for helping people get along, and that they'll stick to the strategies and see some really big stuff happen. That'd be a happy day for me, I think.