When Voices Smile, Bond, And Become Friends

EVERY day I hear voices. Voices in search of answers. My own voice is among them. Some of the voices do their searching over my phone. I have a busy line. At one time, I made use of the phone company's "call waiting" service. Then I found, because of the frequency of beeps, that this arrangement was proving more discourteous than helpful. I discontinued it.

The strange thing is that, in the parentheses between professional calls, some close "phone friendships" have developed across the years. Friendships that are more truly voice-to-voice than person-to-person. With one exception, they all have something in common. The owners of the voices have never actually met.

Voices as friends. In every exchange, the film of familiarity is penetrated by the sound of sincerity and caring. There are times when voices smile. There is even a time when voices bond.

Perhaps, after all, this is not too remarkable. The same kind of bonding must have occasionally occurred between epistles from century to century. I'm thinking of handwritten letters, of course. A familiar "hand" is like a familiar voice. And there are any number of bona-fide pen pals who have never met.

But I have in mind now the remarkable friendship between Tchaikovsky and his patron Nadezhda von Meck. The friendship had its life solely in written correspondence. I recently read a book review in which the writer refers to biographer Alexander Poznansky as saying that this friendship was "arguably one of the most extraordinary unions between a man and a woman known to modern history."

The wealthy, cultured widow found ways of helping Tchaikovsky without making him feel he owed something in return. Her generosity was constant, but there were "strings attached." Her support was conditional on the understanding that he and she were never to meet in person.

Few of us today would find it easy to visualize such a relationship. It is more likely geography or circumstance that delays the meeting of some friends who pick up the phone. Yet the voices of "phone people" who have never met can continue to touch and grow into more meaning and grace than through the written word. I'm not sure how widely discovered this fact is. Ideas never interact so clearly, and I never laugh so heartily as when I have the phone in my hand!

Phone technology offers a new dimension to human relationships in this screen-crazy world of "infotainment" - a dimension that still remains largely neglected. It has nothing to do with talk as a safety valve. As my father-in-law once remarked with a wink, "The guy who said that talk was cheap never paid a phone bill!"

I'm speaking of a dimension in which a balance is found between detachment and intimacy. This is something that is quite absent from the immediacy of face-to-face contact, or even from the tone of a friend's letter. Relationships born of ideas that meet through "phone voices" are untrammeled by the visual distractions of personal presence and are more truly centered in the beauty of spontaneous voice-to-voice communication.

We are surrounded by so much that contradicts this. As one writer put it, "We all play at the game of life without ever actually communicating in any real way." The frequent travesty of aesthetic intention behind true voice relationship is as sad as a dog in a canyon barking endlessly at his own echo, or as sordid as two people caught up in a cheap dial-a-date exchange.

It's amazing how unique the real thing can be. But "... nothing can be added to it nor any thing taken from it." (Eccl. 3:14) On one occasion, after a colorful friendship had gone on for some years between two voices over the phone, the owners of the voices finally met. We sat opposite each other in a restaurant on Long Island, trying to reconcile the visual with the auditory.

With frequent eye contact, our voices soon became shy. What was happening between two men was much more of an adjustment than an asset to that relationship. When I picked up the phone again back in Toronto, the friendship between our voices sighed with relief.

From phones to nature. Many of us know of individuals whose skill in imitating bird sounds has set up interesting relationships with our wild feathered friends. At respectable distances, of course! But I have yet to see a cardinal fly out of a tree and perch affectionately on a human hand - however friendly the "conversation" had been between bird and human.

Yet my daughter got awfully close to surmounting the literalism of the eye with the nuances of the voice. It was when she developed a relationship with a tiny raccoon. The little fellow was the last of a litter stranded in our chimney. He was too weak to make it up the chimney, and at 3 o'clock one summer morning, in response to his plaintive cries, Kristen "learned" the language. Raccoon and woman communed without setting an eye on each other.

In little more than an hour, their voices bonded. It was sufficient to lure the raccoon off the flue down into the grate. He started toward her into the open room, then suddenly changed his mind and bolted through the open door. Clearly, he was more entranced by what he had heard than by what he actually saw - with apologies to my daughter!

In this age of video culture, the viewer seems to have replaced the listener. But the listener is not marginalized: He's simply keeping a low profile. All of us have much more unhurried and thoughtful listening to do.

We may not always be near a phone, and we may not think we're good at learning "languages" - but there are voices out there belonging to lonely creatures as well as to lonely people.

Nothing to do with eye contact. Nothing to do with touch. There are voices out there waiting to be friends.

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