“Do you have time for a conversation?”

With different words, in different places, from different people, this question comes to me day after day.

Two weeks ago I said “yes” to a young woman in Oxford, a South African doing years of graduate study there, first two masters and now a DPhil, trying to understand her place in the world. We met at the little cafe next to the University Church of St. Mary, the Vaults and Garden, a room in use since A.D. 1320. I knew that they offered cream teas in the afternoon, and hoped for that at least once before I left for home the next day.

A day earlier at the Responsible Business Forum sponsored by the Mars Corporation and Oxford University’s Said School of Business, someone who is a dear friend of a dear friend came up to me, explained her own DPhil studies there, and wondered if I would be able to talk with a friend of hers. As she put it, “She has been reading you for years… do you have time for a conversation?”

There is a weight in those words. What was it that I had said? I wonder who she is? What has she taken from my writing? What would a conversation be like? Could I help in an honest way?

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I have spent the years of my life thinking about the responsibility of knowledge, particularly the ways that that reality implicates us, for love’s sake, in the way the world turns out. Knowing what I know, what will I do? It has never been an abstract issue for me, something for ivory-towers, because it means too much for all of us.

And so we met for a cream tea, and a conversation.

She told me about the range of her studies over the last few years, developing an intellectual passion for the aching needs of adolescent young people in the townships of post-apartheid South Africa. As she put it, “They want lives that matter, work that matters. They long for vocations too. But it is all so wrong, and deeply, systemically wrong. This is what I am studying, and I am wrestling with what it all means. Can we talk?”

If the desire for conversation is often the way in, surprisingly it is twined together with something like this: “You have written about suffering, about heartache, about injustice, about vocations in the midst of a wounded world, a world where we know much of the worst about life, and yet still want to hold onto what we believe to be true, working that out in the way we live… but I am having a hard time, knowing what I know.” As must be, the older I get, the more I know; as the poet Byron once put it, “The one who knows the most mourns the deepest.” I understand that, now I understand that.

And while this is the question of my own life, reaching back into the first years of young adulthood when I began to see more, to know more, to feel more, each time the conversation begins with the wounds of the world I take a deep breath, knowing that this too will become a weight in my heart, knowing what I will now know.

I think about this almost all the time— stories of sadness that begin with the most personal sorrows and then bleed into the most public wrongs —but true as that is, it doesn’t make it any easier; in fact it always makes it more complex, knowing what I know. The questions are not cheap, and the answers cannot be cheap.

As we sat in the cafe, the history of centuries all around us, we stepped into the complexity of her study, the burden of her questions, thinking aloud and together about a way forward. Yes, hers was a completely unique question— but it is also one that threads its way through the years of my life, taking its place along the way, one more time hoping for a conversation with consequences, longing for words to become flesh, for ideas to have legs into life.

So, for her, for South Africa, for the way the world turns out…. yes. And cream tea too.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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