This column also appears in the Orange County Register.
As dropped cell phone calls become a daily irritation, the jarring experience of losing a conversation in mid-sentence has become routine. The ugly wart on the nose of wireless communication, what once served as the triumphant but rude ending to an angry conversation has become a daily frustration. The original hang-up technique, signifying an almost monarchical dismissal, that harsh bang sending combatant lovers to their corners, now seems rather quaint by comparison.
We’re all just dangling. Hello? Are you still there? Damn. How foolish we feel to realize the quiet of our receptive listener was actually dead space. How long have I been talking to myself?
We call back and get a busy signal. Or they call us and get voicemail. Or we don’t have their number handy and are careening down the freeway.
The line is dead
When this occurred last week during a conversation with a colleague who has been ill, I began to consider its psychological ramifications and multiple meanings. We’d not seen each other in several months and were deep in conversation when our phone connection was abruptly and silently severed. No bang to announce the departure of my co-conversationalist. Just the disquieting absence of human response. Oh, I must have lost her. Hope she calls back.
“It died,” is the phrase we often use. The connection just died. I waited to see if she’d call back, and when she didn’t, assumed that she’d hit a stretch of road where the signals were well, moribund. Assuming I’d just get her voicemail, I didn’t call her. It wasn’t until the next morning that I noticed she had called back and that somehow I hadn’t noticed the message indicator on my phone. Perhaps I was holding my receiver when she pressed redial. I felt terrible. I felt cut off.
Despite the frequency of these incidents, I continue to find them disturbing and depending upon the nature of the conversation, rather jarring. Aside from the nuisance of having to redial, I began to wonder why these ruptures felt so distressing. We all apologize to each other when this happens, as if we could have prevented the snap, and then respond that it’s okay. But is it really okay to have conversations interrupted like that?
I suspect that in between the socially prescribed apology and easy reply, we experience and quickly suppress a more significant emotional response. We are momentarily reminded of and then quickly distance ourselves from an awareness of mortality and death. For a quick moment, we re-experience the isolation of the vulnerable infant alone in her crib. The loss of a pet. The death of a grandparent. A parent. A friend. A husband. A wife.
For just an instant, we realize that one day the connection will break permanently, and we will never be able to call back. We will never again answer the phone to hear that special voice.
Each of those conversations came to an end. Whispered vowels and intimacies, idiosyncratic phrases that distinguish one individual from another, communications of great importance or simply the shared banalities of daily life one day will cease forever.
One day we say goodbye on the phone for the very last time. Or at the curb. Or the bedside. Sounds that began as muffled rhythms in the womb and accompany us through childhood and life drift away from us, cease to be. And the absence is staggering. Hello? Are you still there?
We are left grasping the air, gasping, desperate to hear those voices once again. When my father died nearly eight years ago, I managed to retrieve his resonant voice from a voice mail message so I could keep a recording for posterity. He and I used to sing together, and I couldn’t bear the thought of never hearing his voice again. It was a ten second reminder about a doctor’s appointment with the very neurosurgeon who had then delivered his dire prognosis. But I wanted it.
I had to call the phone company unit located on Mt. Diablo, give them written permission to access my voicemail and provide my password. I would have given my liver, so desperate was I to retain some connection to my father’s voice, the voice that sang me up the stairs to bed at night. What was chokingly poignant was that I wasn’t the first or only person to have made such a request. The very kind fellow with whom I spoke confided that he received similar requests all the time. All the time.
Ten days later a small cassette arrived. I secured it in a safe place, though have never listened to it. I don’t think I could bear it. I would feel that my father had died all over again. And once was bad enough.
Grief and longings
Several years ago lost in a daydreamy moment when time and place boundaries hazed over, I thought to myself, “Gosh, I haven’t spoken to my father in such a long time. I should call him soon. I should call him.” Within a millisecond, I realized where I was and where he was and that I could not call him. The connection was dead. He was dead. I lurched with fresh grief. Hello? Are you there?
Several times over the past twenty years, I’ve been tempted to dial my grandmother’s phone number just to see who answers. Like a kid making prank calls on New Year’s Eve to a poor guy unfortunately named Loveless. (Yes, I confess.) I so longed to hear her whispery voice, her predictably standard greeting that always made my family laugh, the formulaic response that was dictated by the time of day you called. So, what did you have for breakfast? For lunch? For dinner?
I still miss her. I will always miss her. Nobody else in the entire world cares what or when I eat. The line is broken. The connection is severed. I cannot call her ever again.
There is another loss hiding, more deeply buried than the grief associated with the loss of loved ones. It is our most potent fear, the knowledge we avoid at all cost, the inevitable loss of our very selves. We, too, will die and pass into the generations where our voices will be stilled. Our connections will sever like the cord of a child’s toy stringing two cans together in the manner of a telephone. Are you still there?
It is no wonder that winter festivals and holidays feature candles, lights and music that suggest spiritual birthing while spring rites feature eggs symbolizing renewal.
Wintery celebrations represent our attempts to bypass death, to revive the world that drifts in repose and awaits spring. It is also a way to avoid the reality that eventually, we will see our last spring.
Birth and Death
The comprehensive acknowledgment of perpetual seasonal movement and flow reminds us that birth and death are never far removed from one another. The former is always followed by the latter. We know the facts, though dress them prettily to sanctify or elevate them to a more luminous stratum.
We defend ourselves from the reality of death and its accompanying grief in very creative ways, devising comforting afterlife narratives to insure everlasting life in defiance of the laws of physics. Regardless of belief, who among us hasn’t wished that this alternative might not rescue us from oblivion?
A friend once spoke poignantly about a relative who sat at the bedside of his dying spouse and wrote letters. So horrific was this pending loss of connection, the imminent cessation of their ongoing conversation, that he had to distance himself. He simply could not bear to sit with it.
A patient of mine whose spouse recently died boasted calmly that she was “pragmatic.” This is how she coped with the finality of deathly separation, the dropped call, the line gone permanently dead. This is how she distanced herself from the grief that threatened to engulf her, that must eventually engulf her if she is to mourn fully and move forward. Though she will always love her husband, the visceral attachment to her dead spouse will lessen as attachments to the living strengthen over time. Her seasons will move from winter to spring again.
The child psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott, dubbed such psychologically protective stratagems “manic defenses.” Taken to the extreme, he mused that life, itself, was a manic defense. We busy ourselves with entertainments and occupations, stuffing our days and nights with activity to avoid the reality of mortality.
We check our email fifty times a day and meet friends for lunch. We make music, make love, make art and drive to work. In the quiet moments in between, we dare to ask ourselves probing questions, or perhaps they are asked of us. What is the significance of my life? What does it mean? Why am I here? One day our call will be dropped, and redial won’t work.
Paradoxically, it is only the conscious acknowledgment of mortality that impresses our lives with shape, substance and context. Awareness of finitude is the portal to focus, substance and meaning. In its lack, we remain psychologically undifferentiated and virtually seasonless.
Recognition that we do not have forever to develop ourselves or accomplish our defining goals makes it possible for us to take our place in life and do just that. We must also grieve consciously for what is not attained. Relentless distractions serve only to veil our vision behind gauze.
Another patient lives a frenetic life, busy every minute of every day, always complaining that there is too much to do. The moment this individual stops his relentless, though often meaningless activity, he is consumed with grief. His feelings rush into the tiny crevice created in the quiet of sitting alone with himself in my presence, the only place where he feels sufficiently safe to take off his defensive mask of unyielding and artificial productivity. Terrified that his feelings will tear an irreparable gash in his manic defenses, we move gently together. Reflective silence is slowly becoming an appreciated gift, not an unbearable nightmare.
The Danish psychoanalyst, Erik Erickson, tried to make meaning out of psychological life by proposing distinct developmental stages arcing across the lifespan during which we each must master discrete psychological tasks. As every subsequent task builds on the successes or failures of the one preceding it, personal imperatives are further refined and clarified. With each stage we have a new opportunity to correct our course or verify the choices we have made. Because it is so thought-provoking, this theory is now taught in even the most introductory psychology program.
The infant’s task is to learn to trust her environment. Failure to master this task puts her at risk for a life characterized by chronic mistrust. The young adult must either master intimacy or suffer isolation. The individual in midlife seeks ways to be generative or risks stagnation. The pressing need to alter profession, identify or lifestyle drastically presents most often during this stage of life and is mastered only when the awareness of numbered days becomes psychologically ascendant. The elderly face integrity or despair. This is the time to weave together all the strands and threads of life into a comprehensively sturdy cloth, becoming both a legacy and a shroud.
While this represents just one psychological schema among many analytic theories that offer varied therapeutic and conceptual possibilities, it does attempt to describe the ways we strive to make life meaningful and immerse ourselves dynamically and energetically.
Many of life’s travails are endurable only when the life lived is experienced as purposeful and meaningful, when the connection to self is intact and strong.
The greatest mystery of all is that life is a mystery. We really don’t know how it all turns out. We will lose the connection. Our voices will be stilled. The telephone will serve no purpose, just a vestigial reminder of a concluded life. It is written in a religious text, “Teach us to number our days that we may grow a heart of wisdom.” By sitting thoughtfully with ourselves and learning to tolerate life’s ambiguities and our strong feelings about them, we refine the art of life, filling the days we can claim with purpose and dimension.
Happy New Year.
* All clinical references are composites, crafted to disguise identities and insure patient confidentiality.