Conversation not always two-way, but I hear you

Column by Jim Bishop

It’s a nice problem to have, and while there may be other ways to address it, I’ll give it the ol’ college try.

After all, isn’t the Bishop supposed to have the last word?

This weekly assemblage of words that somehow comes together, often at the eleventh hour, to form a reasonable sequence of sense (and sometimes nonsense) does appear to have an audience. Most of the time, I don’t know who these people are, but I find out through direct (and sometimes secondhand) reader response.

Without wanting to sound boastful, I do get considerable feedback – by e-mail, letters, phone calls and face-to-face encounters on the street. Local readers forward certain columns to others at a distance (and I’ve learned, the hard way, to be mindful of this in deciding subject matter!)

Many replies are affirming, and that’s both energizing and humbling. Some ask questions or want something clarified. Generally, those who question or challenge a point take a constructive criticism approach. I’ve seldom received personal attacks. I’ll be honest. When that happens, it hurts, and any response would likely be viewed as reactionary, in self-defense.

The highest compliment this writer can receive is to have someone tell me that something I wrote “spoke” to them, that it connected to their situation in some way, lifted their spirits or even shed light on a difficult issue they are facing.

I enjoy hearing from people, but therein lays the rub. Like Alan Jackson observes, “Too much of a good thing … is a good thing.” I’m finding it difficult to acknowledge every reader comment. It’s especially hard to deal with letters, because that requires composing and sending a letter in kind, a time-consuming effort. The only letters I write these days are to my 86-year-old mom in eastern Pennsylvania who never jumped on the electronic-mail stagecoach.

The problem is heightened by my other regular obligations – a fast-paced, deadline-oriented job, producing two weekly radio programs (that generate additional response) and family and church commitments.

Some readers apparently have the impression that I’m a staff member of this publication, which I’m not. Persons will cite a local issue that needs addressing and “you’re just the one to tackle it.” I receive countless breathless e-mails from individuals and agencies promoting projects, books and causes, hoping these will become column fodder.

I’m frequently asked where ideas for the columns come from, and I have to reply, “I’m not always sure.” Sometimes, with the deadline looming ahead, a column is birthed that should never have been conceived.

I’m not one to boldly proclaim that “the Lord told me what to write,” although a number of ideas have surfaced during the Sunday-morning worship service at my home congregation. On such occasions, I drop a few extra shekels in the offering plate (and credit my source).

I believe enough in myself, in part based on more than 40 years of writing for a livelihood, that I have confidence in my ability to turn ideas and concepts into discernible narratives. These may not always communicate in the way I envisioned, but that’s part of the risk involved in any public discourse.

We’re rather strange bedfellows, the Augusta Free Press and me. They could tell me today that the party’s over, so go slip some ’50s music on the turntable or watch my “Best of Ernie Kovacs” DVDs. At the same time, I can cease and desist anytime. Either way, my desire is to conclude this weekly task, that remains energizing and rewarding, before it becomes burdensome.

Words are powerful. They can generate deep-seated emotions, invoke laughter and tears, inspire people to aspire to new heights, transform conflict. They are also easily misinterpreted, cut to the quick, dull the senses, unbridle harmful passions.

When I’ve been guilty of the latter, however unintentionally, I can only ask forgiveness and move on.

I feel blessed to have this venue to share my oft-feeble musings. I don’t take the task lightly. In fact, I deem it a sacred honor, a public trust.

If someone is helped, encouraged or challenged by what I lay on the line, that is enough for me.

Let the conversation continue.
Jm Bishop is public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be contacted at bishopj@emu.edu.


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