Your One Phone Call

The show "Seinfeld" was at its height through my formative years -- high school and college. And when I watch reruns today, I identify so much with Elaine that I'm afraid the show might have had excessive influence on me. You know the episode where she grabs George's tupee and yells "I don't like this thing, and here's what I'm doing with it!" And then throws it out the window? I would totally do that.

Also, I think I'm a pretty good dancer. If, like Elaine, I'm a terrible dancer, however, please just let me live in my delusion.

This week I found another parallel -- that Elaine is pretty well-meaning, but sometimes quite lame in her expression of it. If you know me well, you know I think anything you face in life has a Bible verse and a "Seinfeld" episode to relate to it. Recently, I found yet another instance in which this is true: a lesson on being more present in our relationships.

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving to an event at church, and thought about my friend Jodi who I knew had had a really rough week. I had about 10 minutes to talk, so I called to check on her. She really had had a bad week -- she really needed to talk. I warned her that I only had 10 minutes, but just as she was getting deep into what she was experiencing, I had to hang up or decide to walk into a very quiet event late and be very disruptive. I chose to get off the phone.

Later that week she told me she'd talked to another friend later who had let her just pour it all out for as long as she needed to. She wasn't being a bit passive aggressive, but I recognized that I had fallen short; I hadn't been there for her the way I meant to.

I do this ALL THE TIME. While I'm in the car, I often think of a friend, and want to reach out to her before I forget. So I call on the way to the grocery store, for example. But then I have to hang up on her, barely listen to her because now I'm in the produce section, ignore the cashier who's helping me because I don't want to interrupt my girlfriend, or then hit a parked car because I'm distracted. (I wish the last one was an exaggeration. But it's not.)

Elaine has made this mistake too. In the finale episode, she calls a friend on her cell phone from the street to ask about her father who is in the hospital, but has to hang up because of a bad connection. Jerry and George berate her mercilessly:

Jerry: You can't make a health inquiry on a cell phone. It's like saying "I don't want to take up any of my important time in my home so I'll just get it out of the way on the street."

George: On-the-street cell-phone call is the lowest phone call you can make.

Jerry: It's an act of total disregard. It's selfish.

George: It's dismissive.

Jerry: It's pompous.

George: Why don't you think before you do something?

This show was written, obviously, when people still had house phones and didn't do ALL their calls from cell phones. But when this episode came to mind, it made me realize the paradox of our cell phone culture: We are always reachable and in contact, but very often not fully present in our communications. They let us have contact with more people, by making a drive to the grocery store a time we can talk, but are we really able to effectively listen?

Elaine learns from her mistake. At the end of the whole series, she gets locked up in jail, but she's happy, because she realizes that she can call her friend Jill from jail, using her one phone call, which has to be the ultimate in showing someone they are a priority. Elaine sits in her cell happily knowing she can now make full restitution.

I, also, am happy when I can make amends and change. This week, I defaulted to my old pattern and called Jodi, AGAIN on my way to the grocery store. She reminded me that I was not supposed to be talking on the phone while driving anymore (the parked car incident). Hurray for accountability!

I reminded Jodi that I was making an effort to be a less distracted friend, as well as a less distracted driver. So I hung up, bought my food, drove home, and called her back, during, in Jerry's words, my important time in my home. I did put on my headset, put away groceries and sweep my floor at the same time, but that leaves my mind free even though my hands are busy. It was more satisfying for both of us.

So here's a challenge for you this week: Pay attention to your presence in your relationships. Notice if you are trying to relate to people while not actually making that relationship a priority. Can you give people your full attention instead? Our time and attentions are limited. You might find, as I have, that being fully present with people means having to be connected to less people. I can't call each person I love and who crosses my mind in a day (a text maybe is possible), but I can give a higher quality of connection to those I do talk to. I hope you might find, that it's a much more satisfying way to live.