Spring break in Panama City Beach, Florida is not typically a hotbed of virtue or reflection.
Morality and self-improvement were last on my mind as I boarded my flight south. Instead, I was eagerly awaiting my reunion with friends I hadn’t seen in weeks, and gearing up for the stereotypical combination of sunny beaches and wild parties. This is not a post about temperance. This is a post about another one of Ben Franklin’s virtues—sincerity—and the importance of genuine conversations.
Our cheap little suite, in the only motel that rented rooms to college students, had few amenities. The one thing it did have, though, was a balcony. We spent every “morning,” on that balcony, eating “breakfast” (Poptarts, oranges, or fried chicken—at eleven) and looking out over the ocean. We also spent every night—or at least the wee hours of the morning—out on that balcony, talking, joking, and gazing at the stars. These late-night conversations made my spring break.
One conversation stands out for me. It happened down on the beach at about one a.m. The others had gone to sleep, and the beach was deserted. My friend and I were still up, though, so we decided to go for a walk. We soon found ourselves sitting in beach chairs, enjoying the silence, and listening to chilled-out music. Eventually we began to talk. Sitting there, in the dim starlight, looking out at the waves, there was a palpable realness. We swapped stories about home, family, friends, and growing up. Things got heavy, but something in that moment made it okay to open up. We opened up about mistakes we had made and friends we had lost. By the time we decided to head to bed, each of us had shared experiences and feelings that few, if any, other people had ever heard about.
Sincerity, in Franklin’s words, entails using “no hurtful deceit, think[ing] innocently and justly,” and “speak[ing] accordingly,” if at all.
Moments of palpable realness exemplify this virtue—and these moments are rare. The regular use of “hurtful deceit” and dearth of “innocent and just” interaction pushes many of us to don a metaphorical suit of armor to protect the vulnerable parts of ourselves from the outside world. Consciously or not, we are afraid to take it off, even though it burdens us. Only the people we truly trust ever meet our unarmored, emotional selves. These people and our relationships with them are incredibly special.
Building these sincere relationships and having these sincere conversations is hard. It involves opening ourselves up to pain and embarrassment. It takes practice and courage. While there isn’t any single formula for achieving the magic of palpable realness, one thing that really helps is sincerely listening. Sincerely listening, or active listening as it is more commonly known, involves everything from empathizing (both vocally and internally) with the speaker, to eye contact and body language. By supporting the speaker and helping the listener to engage more deeply, active listening can help facilitate more genuine interactions. I’ve also found that being one-on-one and in the outdoors helps quite a bit. There is something about being face to face and away from the pressures and expectations of “real life,” that allows for introspection and openness.
That being said, palpable realness only happens spontaneously.
While a lot of effort goes into readying yourself to be sincere and surrounding yourself with people who value this virtue, there is no way to manufacture palpable realness. In a sense, that is part of the magic of it.
Weeks after that conversation on the beach, our friendship has reached a new level. In a spoken agreement on the walk back to our room, we decided to work on being more sincere, more often with each other. Since we returned to campus, we have. We’ve helped each other work through tough decisions, and spent more time together. A mutual friend even noticed the improved closeness in our friendship. By implementing the virtue of sincerity I’ve gained a true friend and a comfortable place to go. Both are invaluable.