Pick up the phone

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When I was in elementary school – well before we could use Google to conduct instantaneous research – my peers and I would occasionally be assigned a project that would require us to pick up the telephone and request information from another human being, live on the other end of the line.

I can recall a couple of instances when I had to go through this process to get something like local government info or a state park map. As a shy kid I would dread having to pick up the bright yellow phone attached to the equally yellow kitchen wall (ah, early 1980s décor), interact with a stranger I couldn’t see, and place myself in the position of having to ask for something. A supplicant. Couldn’t I just find it for myself in a library book? But the assignment needed to be completed by using the phone, so I did it. And it was never as bad as I thought it would be.

A couple of decades later, in the early years of my professional career, I came to find that calling people was not only an essential way to connect with them but an enjoyable experience. Eventually, I would realize picking up the phone even to ask for things – like a prospective donor’s support for a charitable cause or a colleague’s vote for a piece of legislation – was absolutely necessary if I hoped to achieve individual and team objectives. And not unlike the experiences of my childhood, I came to see that most people were only too glad to have been asked and, in most cases, were more than willing to assist.

This is why I’ve been pondering a phenomenon I now regularly experience: outreach that comes in a curiously passive manner and, upon prompt response, has no follow-up. The most common medium seems to be direct message (DM) on a social media channel that arrives dripping with urgency. “Mike, I really need to talk with you about [important subject]. Can I call you?” Although I don’t prefer the DM function of social media, I always cheerfully reply in the affirmative and provide my phone number (which has remained the same since 2006, but since they’re using such an indirect way of reaching out for a supposedly critical request I assume they’ve misplaced it).

And then I never receive a call.

Apparently, whatever was such a pressing matter was otherwise resolved, obviating the need for the breathlessly requested call. Or is it something else? Has technology so insulated us from direct contact with one another that we no longer remember how to interact with people – or has it at least given us a more comfortable, lower risk option to get what we want without having to do so? Part of me wonders if many of us have turned into the elementary school version of Mike with that old land line phone – but without a caring parent or teacher to encourage us to do what we’d prefer not to.

Hungry? Place your order on the restaurant’s app. Want to travel somewhere? Book your flight online. Spiritually parched? Listen to a sermon from that pastor you like…at a church 2,000 miles away. No actual human interaction required!

But this is not how we are supposed to live. Humans were created to experience fellowship and community with one another. Technology is a tool for communicating, not a replacement for interpersonal engagement. Ask any deployed service member how wonderful it is to be able to Skype with his or her family at home while serving on another continent. But then consider how much more it means to return safely and be able to embrace one’s spouse and children. The “face phone” is an acceptable surrogate when we have nothing better to stay connected; it is not a replacement for direct human contact with people.

Almost two decades ago, Robert Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” identified some of the ways in which Americans were drawing back from engagement with one another. Today, we see it still: shrinking membership organizations, such as masonic, fraternal, civic, and veterans groups, half unfilled rosters of central committee members for local political parties, and perennially low voter turnout despite the strong opinions so many clearly now have about virtually everything. Putnam called it “declining social capital” but it seems to me that’s a symptom rather than the cause.

Why do we shrink from interaction with others? For the same reasons we have turned from meaningful relationship with God. Stubbornness, rebellion, and pride. Whether or not we realize, it takes humility and initiative to be the person who picks up the phone and connects with someone, schedules time for coffee or beer with an old friend, or even (gasp!) drops by a neighbor’s house unannounced to say hello. It requires us to check our ego and recognize we are not the center of the universe, not owed a favor by others, and not able to live a meaningful existence in the sole service of our individual desires and feelings.

How about you? When is the last time you stopped thinking about your own needs and selflessly engaged in direct, meaningful outreach with another – not for what you could get out of it but to make the other person feel loved and appreciated? Today is a great day to do that. How about reaching out to someone to say hello, ask them to lunch, or see if they’d be interested in working on a volunteer project with you?

We truly are built for relationship and to have that commodity in a real way, we must be vulnerable. Each of us must be the supplicant I didn’t like being during those phone calls when I was in elementary school. It may not be to ask for a roster of government officials or a park map from a toll-free answering service, but we all need something from other people that can’t be accessed by pushing a button on an app. And they need something from us.

Let’s swallow our pride and stop being passive due to fear of rejection or whatever it is that stands in the way of meaningful connection with others. Take the initiative and pick up the phone.

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