People often start the ideas they’re about to speak with the phrase “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about…” It was especially prominent at silent meeting at F&W over the summer. It’s as if the idea couldn’t be valid without a lot of thought before it, but what comes out is usually pretty standard, pretty derivative, and about what you’d expect from someone about to deliver a “deep” thought. Even in my cynical and overly rational state, I still feel that what gets said there is sacred and powerful and even if it doesn’t resonate in my ears the way it’s intended to land, once upon a time it did, when I was young, and I’m sure that it does for many people there. Each generation of campers and staff deserve their own time and space to have their own revelations in their own time independent of my jaded cynicisms.
The “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about…” lead-in phrase is certainly not limited to silent meeting in Plymouth, Vermont. I overhear it all of the time at cafés and restaurants and basically anytime someone’s about to share something that is perhaps a slightly loftier idea than just a quick observation. What’s weird to me isn’t the phrase and one’s use of it as a transition, but that the wording appears to be the exact same across so many different places. Each time it is said, it even has the same feel to it, as if I can expect the idea to follow it to be of the exact same weight as every other idea that has followed that phrase before, even if the content is starkly different.
It seems to mark a transition for us. In silent meeting people use it to transition the group from silence into processing someone’s thought. In one on one conversations it seems to suggest to the other person that either a large shift in subject matter is coming or perhaps a farfetched or rather unplanned (ironically) idea is about to be let loose. It softens the blow for the listener but I think it also softens the potential blows that could come back to the speaker. The fact that the speaker has been “thinking” about it suggests that the thought it unfinished, and any incongruities in the thought chain perhaps just haven’t been worked out, or if the idea is off base, they could fall back on “well it was just a thought.” The fact that they have been thinking about it “a lot lately” suggests that it’s something they care about and don’t want to be shot down as a result of it because that would actually be a blow at their core and perhaps even their ideology or world-view.
People begin to share a fact about their academic field of study with this phrase. They begin their silent meeting statements with it. They begin their relationship discussions with their significant others with it. It shows that they are looking for compassion and understanding towards what will follow and also that they trust or are beginning to trust the person or group with whom they are sharing. It also shows doubt and uncertainty either about the idea or about the potential reaction of the community.
From this point, my analytic knife wants to cut two ways. I’ll walk down both roads because I think it’ll give me an outlet for a bit more thought tonight. Our guides for this trip will be the oft displayed angel on one shoulder and devil on the other. First, let’s start with the angel. When someone leads a though with this phrase, they’re beginning to trust you, or you as a part of a bigger whole. I’d venture to guess that they’d love you to inquire more about what they said or explore that road further and bring it up again in a week. It’s a verbal cue that says “hey, I care about this” and it’d be a great way for you to pick up on a topic that cuts straight to the heart of what they like. Yay friendships.
Now for the devil: everything I just said about the angel, only with the intention to manipulate someone. You could tear them down right off the bat by tearing down whatever it is that follows this phrase. You could imply that you’re interested and then yank the rug out from under them at a later date. You could just ignore whatever it is that they bring up. This phrase betrays a point at which you can gain their trust and work your way into their psyche. Think of it like software that didn’t get patched and when a hacker see the right version number they know to try x, y and z to get through the wall. Certain software vulnerabilities are more dangerous than others: just as a vulnerability in a program that can only modify screen savers isn’t that critical but one in a program that has root privileges is of incredible concern, whatever follows that phrase indicates the level of “penetration” that has been reached. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Shakespeare’s use of commas in his historical plays,” indicates something of significantly less consequence than “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lonely I am now that Billy left me.” This whole idea is nothing precise, but I’d bet five dollars that I’m right.
Every time I hear this phrase I get a little uncomfortable. When campers say it, I think “please just don’t let it be stupid,” out of fear that the cruelty of kids will play the devil and make that kid regret having shared anything in the first place. When adults say it, it makes me just resent whatever it is they’re about to say, which is uncalled for. I guess it just feels like a lack of self-confidence… or maybe it’s just frustration that no one else hears how often it gets said!
So anyways, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this. If you tear it down you’ll make me cry.