Unknown Caller

W. F. Bellais II

The telephone is probably the rudest invention of the industrial age. Have you ever noticed when in a conversation with someone the face-to-face conversation comes to an end when the phone interrupts and demands an immediate answer? The telephone’s ring, or claxon, or whatever beckons you to the instrument, must be obeyed. The person standing in front of you can be ignored, but the telephone cannot. That’s what I mean about the rudeness of this instrument.

I suppose we cannot live without it now. The telephone in all sorts of renditions is ubiquitous. The ubiquity of the telephone is manifest in my own home. At last count there are four telephones on the second floor and two on the first. I don’t know why the first level of our home has been slighted, but for that matter, I don’t know why there are four on the second level. Additionally, my wife and I have a cell phone each. Mine is rarely used.

All but two of the eight telephones in my house are portable. That means I can carry my phone around the house if I wish, which happens now and then. The result is, even though there are seven others to answer, the one phone may be lost and not in its charging stand; this leads to a frantic search for it (there’s a Biblical parallel in there somewhere).

I must confess that I am as guilty as the next when it comes to the telephone. I respond to the telephone as if it needs my urgent attention. The irritating ring shatters the calm of the moment and I rise up out of my chair and answer the call; that is I rise if I must (but I have enough phones around that I don’t have to rise from my chair very often to answer the beckoning ring).

However, caller identification has become a boon to those of us who are irritated by the telephone. When the caller is identified I can choose to answer or not. Of course, I choose more often than not to answer the phone.

But, I have established some rules about answering the phone. First, if the identifying information comes up as “unknown caller”, I will not answer. It seems that this unknown caller likes to interrupt my dinner hour or when I am in the middle of something more interesting than fending off an appeal to buy or donate. Now, if a number comes up but the caller is not identified, I may answer (if I recognize the number). 

I think if the call is truly important, the caller will leave a message on my answering machine. It doesn’t require much to say, “This is Joe, give me a call”. Sometimes a message is left. A recent one proclaimed that the caller was not selling anything, but it was important for me to call a toll-free number and I will learn what’s out there waiting to improve my life. Other callers reported that they are collecting money for the police officers benevolent league and wouldn’t I like to support our state’s police? Yes, I would, but only if the local department calls to ask for my support.

To me the telephone is a distillation of life in general. It seems we are buffeted daily by unknown callers. Often the unknown callers promise all sorts of bright financial or political futures. We don’t know where or how, but the promise is rosy; and, because we are not taking advantage of the beckoning promise, we may even have  some feeling of guilt. 

Generally we are in control of our lives (or at least try to be). We feel more in control when we can select or deselect incoming information. If the unknown caller does not wish to be identified I can choose not to find out who is on the other end. If the caller is identified, but I don’t want to talk at that time, I have it in my power to ignore the call. Now, that is control or the illusion of control.

However, I have thought about ignoring or being indifferent to the unknown caller. Ignoring or indifference is probably ruder than responding to an interrupting telephone call to tell the caller to “take a hike.” Emotions of love and hate are very personal. The object of love or hate is usually awareness of our states of mind and can react appropriately. However, indifference is more damaging.  When I am faced with indifference or being ignored, I don’t know what to do. 

Once I was a parish rector and I  often wondered what could be done to overcome indifference to faith, the church, and religion in general. I felt better when someone said to me, “I hate the Church it is full of hypocrites!” At least that is not an indifferent reaction.  One time I thought it would a good idea to get dancing-girls with pom-poms out at the front of the church; that certainly could not be ignored and would create a widespread reaction. Now whether it would make a difference in bringing people to faith is questionable. Such gimmicks may work for a while but they become dull and people return to ignoring and indifference. 

The basic problem, as I see it, is that people often treat God as the “unknown caller” and refuse to answer. I believe that God, or something beyond us, is constantly calling us to something—something usually more rewarding than leading lives of desperation . Answering the call, however, takes energy, it takes daring, and it requires a surrender of sorts.

Humanity is called to examine its responses to the unknown caller to recognize and respect individual human dignities.

So maybe, I need to reexamine my own rule about not responding to the “unknown caller” and be available to hear the caller speak to me about all the changes and chances of daily living.

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