The monthly clergy meeting concluded. Long familiarity gave an ease to the conversation: church programs announced, denominational concerns shared, gossip exchanged and, finally, good-byes said.
As I drove away I began to mull over what was not said on issues critical to our common life: our shaky denominational future, pressing theological issues, the struggle to maintain viable institutions, and the enhancement of professional skills.
There was more not said: years-long worry over a life-threatening illness of his child, another's inadequate income beginning to scrape bone, and still another's clergy-killing church members sapping strength and spirit. Other demons were no doubt present that day, but to those I was not privy.
Thinking about what was not said left me disappointed and sad, disappointed that the group's surface normalcy was a barrier to facing deeper, critical issues and sad over the lost opportunity to reach out to others with a listening ear and a healing touch. Not that I was surprised, for all the days of our lives have been spent 'sliding by' others. The "Hi, how are you" only grammatically requires a question mark. Even in the intimacy of a home, we learn to relate by sliding by each other, so that in some circumstances, there can be total surprise when a spouse says, "I want a divorce," or drugs are found in the room of one's child, or someone commits suicide.
Still, one would hope, in a group of professionals trained to be attentive to others' pain and skilled at ministering to others' needs, that professionals' personal pain would be discerned. Not so. Ministers learn the same lessons we all learn -- if something is not brought up then it doesn't exist (a form of don't ask, don't tell).
I began to imagine a world in which we all were more attentive to real issues and to personal pain. Then I could see why we avoid that much attentiveness. For once organizational or relational issues are raised, we must then expend the time and energy to take action or to consciously bury an issue.
Attentiveness means we open ourselves to stopping and listening to the response to our "How are you?" In a world where there is so much unaddressed pain and grief, being attentive to others can be an enormous drain on our emotional energy as well as on our time. How long can we tolerate the repetitive stories of others when there is no change in a situation or when they have no desire to move on in their lives? Thus, in self protection, we learn to keep such individuals at an emotional distance, depriving them even more of what they so desperately seek.
Next month the what-was-not-said crowd will again meet. Again, we will avoid facing difficult issues and entangling alliances. Disappointment and sadness will remain with me. But, I am certain, understanding and relief will be present as well.