My own religion
This piece came out of several over-lapping discussions I carried on by email with friends (and a few strangers).

I have been thinking about making up my own religion of sorts.  I guess it really isn't a religion since I don't have any theological beliefs associated with it, but I got this idea from a combination of the homework assignments in Fight Club and a book called "Three Minutes a Day."  The book was published back in the '60s, and I think it was by a Catholic priest or something.  He had a series of 365 personal meditations that you were supposed to read, one each day, then think about it for three minutes.  I don't know what they were like, but I liked the idea of an active religion.

This ran against my notion of religion being a place you went to once a week and a list of ten things you were not supposed to do.  Or else!  Instead, this was more like school.  You were required to do your homework, only you weren't really graded on it; it was just designed to make you a better person... or maybe to just brainwash you into buying into dogma or something.  Like I said, I didn't read it.

My homework assignments would be more along the lines of Fight Club.  You go out and you make contact with people.  I remember watching some news magazine years ago in which they looked at treatments for shyness.  The therapists would have their patients do real-world exercises like going to the grocery store and asking strangers what aisle the bread was on.  It was simple, but it was a one-sided exchange.  After all, only the shy person got anything out of the interaction.  The stranger just gave directions.  Nothing gained, just his or her time wasted.

By contrast, a few years ago one of the reporters on This American Life decided she would no longer engage in small talk just to fill space when people had nothing to say.  She came up with a list of questions (she calls it "the Rundown") that would either end the conversation or make it far more interesting.  As she put it, you go from the conversation you're "supposed" to be having to the one you *want* to be having.  For example, she was talking with some guy at her office and the topic would just be about the coffee or something.  As she puts it, "Why chew the fat when you can chew the meat?"  She latches onto something he mentioned about his girlfriend. "Are you in love?" she asks.

He's a bit confused by this and sort of stammers a thinking-out-loud answer, so she goes with something more concrete.  "How many one-night stands have you had ?"

Well, he is a bit embarrassed by this one, but then goes on a bit about how he knows the total number but he's not sure how many were one night stands.  Then, abruptly, he says, "Four and a half."

Another rule of hers is, "If you can think it, you can ask it."  She immediately asks, "How many of them were virgins?"

This leads to a lengthy response about his first time, rich in details and introspection.  The philosophy behind all of this is: People are just waiting to talk about themselves.  Also, they like to be asked questions they have answers to.

There's a lot of idle time in daily existence when we are standing side by side with other living, thinking entities.  Basically we are surrounded by untapped renewable resources.  As I stood in line at the polls waiting to vote in the last election, there were probably a couple hundred people within fifty yards of me.  I figured the wait would be long, so I brought a book to read, but I also listened in on whatever conversations emerged around me.  Sadly, there weren't very many.  The information that passed between strangers tended to be exactly what you would expect: small talk.  "How long have you been waiting?"  "Wow, this line is really long."  That was just about all of it.

Now, it isn't that I really believe that everyone is a great conversationalist, but I'm sure everyone could shine if you got them on the right topic.  Imagine a culture in which real contact was encouraged; a whole generation would grow up excelling at this.  But the problem is this: no prompts.

Where my religion comes in is to expect people to make use of their heretofore wasted time.  By having a true assignment, people will feel like they're on a mission of sorts.  They have to go out and mingle and learn about their world or they'll go to hell.  Or something.  I haven't worked out that part yet.

One thought would be that, instead of spending your Sunday afternoons at church listening to a sermon (or whatever it is those people do), the "congregation" (such as it is) would be off on a scavenger hunt.  Only in this case, the objective would be to leave a little more randomness in the world rather than collecting bits.  Your "pastor" would supply you with a checklist of items/tasks to find/leave/perform around town.  Okay, it isn't perfect, but it's a start.

Similarly, I guess I need to work on my own version of the Rundown.  I guess there's a nascent version of that developing on the web right now.  MySpace users post their "20 Questions" personality inventories in their blogs, but they don't go much beyond that.  I mean, is there any real incentive to fill one out and send it to the person who posted it?  Only among the egotistical, I suppose, but that's missing a huge (and probably far more interesting) segment of the population.  There is nothing to ensure a random sample otherwise.

As for why this is important, you really need others' ideas and perspectives to uncover things that you overlook because you can take them for granted.  One particularly dramatic illustration of this can be found historically.  Most people don't realize that many of the major advances in astronomy came about when different cultures came into contact with one another for the first time.  In short, their assumptions were challenged.

Consider what would happen if, on a global scale, day after day, individuals were asking one another questions like:
-What do you think happens when we die?
-Where do you see yourself in ten years?
-If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
-What's your favorite thing in the world to do?
-If you could have any talent, what would it be?
-Do you recycle?
-What's the one thing you want the whole world to know about you?
-What's your best friend like?
-What have you always wanted to do, but haven't yet?
-If you could go back and change one thing you did in the past year, what would it be?

Sure, a lot of people would just want to get out of the elevator really quickly, but wouldn't the world be a much more interesting place?
Oh, and if you have any more ideas for questions and/or homework assignments, send them in!

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