Relationship, Context, and “I Wanna Go to WalMart”

I meet regularly early on Tuesday mornings for a couple hours with a few guys for spiritual renewal and refreshing. We’ve been doing it for about 5 years now—sometimes we pray, sometimes we study, sometimes we just talk, sometimes it’s a combination of these and who knows what. This past Tuesday turned out to be one of the most hilarious times we’ve had in a while.

It started out as a discussion of some spiritual principle, I think, but it turned into an insight for me about life in general. The conversation began with Barry’s question, “What does … mean?” (I forget what the specific was because what came next was so funny.)

Chris (who turns 52 tomorrow and often has some of the most out-of-the-box perspectives on things) said, “It’s all about relationship. What does it mean to you if my wife says, ‘I wanna go to WalMart’?” Charles said something. Art said something. I said: “She might actually want to go to WalMart, or she might just want to get out of the house.” Then Chris hit us with it: “What if it’s a code for, ‘I want to have sex.’? I have relationship with her, so I would know that, but you wouldn’t!” Of course, much laughter ensued, but it was a powerful insight.

If we don’t know someone or really have relationship with them, we have to pretty much mean what we say. Of course, our context—where we’re coming from, the situation we’re in, the particulars of the matter—influence our understanding of what is said, and we all have stories of how easy it is to mis-interpret what someone says. But we can only develop codes and have secret or private understanding of meaning via relationship. We have to have a mutual understanding, an agreement, sometimes unspoken, that when I say X you understand Y, something totally different that the literal, obvious, face-value meaning. And we do this sort of thing all the times in our families and friendships. It’s what slang is all about: When we say something’s “cool” or “bad,” we don’t mean that literally. But we have to agree on the meaning, and that happens through relationship. Gangs and cults and terrorist organizations know this well, but so do businesses and churches and civic groups. All develop their “insider” languages, their private code-signals (phrases, signs, etc.) that say, “I’m in… are you with me?”

The conversation got even quirkier a bit later when Barry, who had had to leave early to go do a job that was some distance away, called Charles by accident. Mumbling on the other end of the phone, he said, “I meant to call my wife. Why am I calling you???” Of course, we had to suggest that maybe he really wanted to go to WalMart after all…

Yes, I had to ask Chris privately—he’s one of my best friends—whether that was an actual code phrase they used. Never got a clear answer on that. Maybe my relationship with him isn’t deep enough. That’s OK. I didn’t really want to go to WalMart with Chris anyway.

Though I did go to WalMart with Charles later that day. But only to buy a hunting license—and some cough suppressant for my wife, who’s been too sick to go…

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