I was such a good secretary. Just enough Myers Briggs “I” and “P” to synthesize ideas and data, not so much OCD that I couldn’t stop mid-project to talk with a visitor. And Google? Put any question to me, any question at all; I would (I’ll still!) find out what you need to know, lickety-split. What snagged me, though, was the telephone perched on the edge of my desk. It would ring, and I’d wonder for a moment – for the length of that first electronic trill and then perhaps half of another – whether my boss in the next room would notice if I simply didn’t answer, so great was my terror of holding the receiver to my ear and saying “Hello.”
The telephone is a strange device, but it’s been around long enough now (disturbing the peace since 1876) that we are used to it. In his essay “My Father’s Brain,” Jonathan Franzen includes the phone as one in a list of “charms” modern materialism has disruptively bestowed upon us. He suggests that we’ve reverted to something ominously empty in “our incessant telephoning, our ephemeral e-mailing, our steadfast devotion to the flickering tube.” Granted, Franzen’s essay was written more than ten years ago, and the original landline hook-and-handset is indeed a relic. But the idea still rings as true as a cell phone buzzing insistently from the bottom of my purse: must communicate! Now! And all from a distance. In the absence of an actual person, a voice, disembodied. This has become normal. This is a strange way to live.
When Alexander Graham Bell, with the help of Thomas Watson, developed the telephone’s liquid transmission technology back in the 1870’s, his wildest dreams were for its broad home use: “The day is coming,” he proclaimed, “when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water and gas – and friends converse with each other without leaving home.” Other folks, however, considered the phone an intrusion that would never catch on in the home – oh, wait. I’m thinking of the television. And also cellular phones. And texting, and video chat, all prophesied to never become widely-used. Early predictions for the phone’s success weren’t much different; the higher-ups at Western Union in the late 1800’s brushed the new technology aside as an impractical toy. It was so awkward a device, so utilitarian and impersonal, that folks would surely never grow used to it as a daily conversational tool. The phone might do fine for government or business purposes, perhaps, but never for the average housewife on the kitchen line. God bless those insightful souls; this housewife agrees.
Even Bell admitted that telephoning was unusual enough to necessitate sign-on/sign- off directions, detailed in the first user’s manual. He and Watson drafted a script. “Ahoy!” for a greeting, or perhaps, “Hulloa!” And “That is all” for farewell. What if that had caught on? Well, what if it had? Imagine: a script! Oh, to talk on this strange device and not have to navigate the near-impossibility of communicating with someone without being with someone. If I’d had a script back in those secretary days, one that all the frantically-phoning parents (I worked in a university office in the early days of Helicopter Parenting) also ascribed to, I might have been bolder. I might have picked up on the first ring!
Of course, much can be attributed to personality. Facebook is live these days with lists that help us define how we already are, along the lines of “Top Twenty Signs You’re an Introvert.” One list insightfully described those of us who seem outgoing, but only because we put such a huge amount of effort into having to talk at all. Over-talking because of feeling uncomfortable talking. (Lord, the things we do to ourselves.) Back when my daughter was an infant, I would pop out of church worship on Sunday mornings and into the baby room, where the service was piped in for nursing moms soothing crying kiddos. Being in the service had been a glorious comfort, that permission I craved to be within a crowd without talking. The baby room was cold water in the face, and in my discomfort at sitting in awkwardly-close quarters with a bunch of women I didn’t know well, I couldn’t desist. I hated to talk; I had to talk. Many a baby- soothing mom, I think, feigned sleep over in the corner rocker to avoid my anxious chatter. I wanted to avoid it, myself.
In the Spring 2013 issue of Image journal, Fred Bahnson’s book excerpt “The Underground Life of Prayer” describes the time he spent living and working amongst Trappist monks in South Carolina. Meditation was central to the lifestyle, and so, too, was silence. But when Bahnson describes the monastery as a “household that includes fields, people, and home,” I cringe a little: how many people? Did he have to interact with them all? Often? On a daily basis?? (You begin to wonder if I was actually that good a secretary.) So much forced interaction: this monastic life suddenly sounds terrible! Then I recall how, earlier in the article, Bahnson describes the monastery’s morning vigils: “When Vigils ended at four AM we would leave in silence, returning to our cells for nearly two hours of ‘spiritual reading.’” They would leave in silence. It was permission to be together and not talk. Yes. In the absence of voice, a person, and the rich possibilities of a connective quiet.
I expect you’ve heard of the popular parents’ tome What to Expect When You’re Expecting (though happy for you if you haven’t). My realm being the nursery rather than the monastery, I can attest this book is enough to make every already-paranoid parent quake in fear that he or she is somehow at constant risk of ruining his or her child’s future. In every moment, I could be doing more. I should (dreaded word) be playing more, cooing more, and (dreaded thought) talking more to my baby. After reading this book, I lived in a state of heightened distress at the demands this small person placed upon my already-subdued social set. I was convinced I was not talking with her enough; her language acquisition would surely suffer. But sometimes I didn’t want to talk to her at all! My panic reached critical heights. I tried explaining this to friends and received blank stares. “You don’t want to talk to your own daughter?” I imagined them thinking. But my poor daughter. She herself did not often want to be chattered at; the Myers Briggs “I” goes for her, too.
All this to say, talking is good at the right time, but it isn’t good for all the time. And the phone? It’s fine when it’s useful. I’ll admit its benefits: emergency calls, important announcements, and the like. But let’s imagine that earlier script could be reinstated. Ring ring. “Hulloa?” “Hulloa, Bob! This is Evelyn. Martha had her baby. All are healthy. Visiting hours are one to three.” “I’ll come tomorrow. Is that all?” “That is all.” Think of it as a spoken telegraph message. (Ah, the telegraph. Now there was a distance communication device.) But I can hear you on the other end of the internet. You think the scripted approach too void of the personal touch, too empty of that common depth of understanding that makes us human. But I ask you, how normal is it to talk to someone when you’re with no one? (Or, worse, when you’re with someone other than the one you’re talking to.) This is a strange device, the telephone. It requires the development of unnatural social nuances and niceties. Must we expect it also to intersect with real, deep communication?
Perhaps it’s just me and the social anxieties talking. But that (very likely) being the case, I make this request of you – yes, you, all of you whom I like and care to know, who are many. When I don’t return your calls for days or weeks or possibly even months at a time, please restrain yourselves from leaving mildly irritated messages along the lines of “Just calling . . . again,” or, worse, when I (brave me!) finally do call, “I was starting to give up on you.” A thousand years is like a day to the Lord our God, and two months feel like a mere half week when I’m bracing myself to punch in the numbers on the little black plastic brick that connects me in such an uncomfortable and disconnected fashion to you (whom I like and care to know) on the other end.
My friends, please. Socializing in person takes effort enough as it is. When it comes to the phone, give me time, give me leeway, give me grace. (Season it with pity, if you must. Envision me, guilt-laden, hovering indecisively over the phone for days in a row before finally dialing you.) Grant me patience. Or, better, come over to my house and sit with me, in-person. But either way, give me permission to not talk.