Monday, February 28, 2011

Hearing Voices

Last month I went to see Ira Glass at the Alys Stephens Center. As the host and creator of NPR's This American Life, Ira is nothing short of a god in my book. My attachment to him is not ill-placed. The weekly series is the epitome of storytelling, and remarkable—in our age of visual cues—that the portraits painted on that show are exclusively created via audio. Appropriately, Ira opened his performance with the theatre pitch black, save for the exit signs. And then...there was Ira's voice, that distinct, slightly-nasal midwestern twang, saying, Radio is the comforting voice in the dark. And for a few moments, guided only by Ira's voice, the audience was transported to a place where we could settle in for the next two hours and be entertained. (And yes, he did eventually turn the lights back on.)
   Ira's observation was astute. For generations, radio has been that voice calling out from the abyss to confirm that we were not alone in this world. In decades past of course, radio was THE medium for conveying solidarity. One of the most vivid examples, is Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural address in which he spoke the ultimate words of comfort to a nation rapt in uncertainty: There's nothing to fear but fear itself.  Not having lived through the Great Depression or a World War, the greatest fear I can conjure is the sense of being utterly alone—and in the dark.

   In August, at the pinnacle of my Crisis, I reached out to a voice in the dark as I wrestled with the onset of divorce. With Jack slumbering upstairs, I sat down at my computer and tried to write out the emotions, to no avail. I began to cry and what issued forth was a jag of Holly Hunter in Broadcast News proportions. I could not stop sobbing. The feelings of anxiety and despair were overwhelming. I couldn't even think of sleep. It was after midnight and, although I have many good friends who would have answered my call, I could not bear to admit to anyone I knew that I was in this state of emotional turmoil. Still, I knew I needed to talk to someone. Fortunately, my therapist had provided me the number of the local Crisis Center—just in case. Sniveling and inconsolable, I dialed the number, and a volunteer promptly picked up. "I'm having a really hard time," I said. "I'm just overwhelmed and I just need to talk."
   I have no idea who this Woman was, or why she decided to answer the calls of desolate, lonely people in the wee hours of the morning, but she became my voice in the dark, listening to me pour out my woes. My litany of sorrows—from the loss of my job and my father's death, to the demise of my marriage and my fear that divorce would cause my son irrevocable harm—tumbled out. Having been raised a good Catholic, I'm accustomed to spilling my guts to a faceless authority, and the Crisis Hotline Woman became my confessor. She could not absolve me of my sins, nor take away the problems I faced, but like a good priest, she listened and doled out her secular absolution. The Woman listened intently. "My goodness, it's no wonder you feel overwhelmed," she said, when I finally took a breath. She became the Voice of Reason. We talked for a least an hour, and when I hung up the phone I had exhausted my fears—at least for that night—and was able to rest.
   These days, I'm often Jack's Voice of Reason. At nine, he's fairly fearless, but children like to be scared every now and then if only to find that sense of comfort. When he frets in his sleep, all I have to do is say, "Jack, it's all right, I'm here." (When I was younger than Jack is now, I shared a room with two of my sisters. The twin beds were situated so that my head was at my sister Mary's feet. On occasion when I grew scared in the night, all I had to do was reach out and grasp her big toe. Not exactly the source from which one typically attains comfort, but it worked. In fact, just knowing she was there made everything right.)
   I believe we all need that source of reassurance, at least from time to time. Not someone to solve our problems or make everything better, but someone just to hear us and—equally as important—to respond with compassion. We all need that voice in the dark, reassuring us that we are not alone, and everything will—eventually—be all right.

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