Pavlov’s telephone ring

I was having lunch with a pastor-colleague a couple of years ago, and we since we hadn’t seen each other for awhile, we were catching up.  He was telling me about his wife’s breast cancer scare; I was sharing that I was heading in for another MRI to check out my hemorrhage-prone brain.  So, pretty deep and heavy stuff.

Then, his cell phone rings.


So, a recap of the pertinent details:   Restaurant, heavy topics,  pastors, aka professionally trained good listeners.  Cell phone rings.

And he answers his phone.  And starts talking into it.  And I am sitting right there across from him.  And I am half-way amused, half-way appalled.  Aren’t we as clergy supposed to be more sensitive?  Aren’t we supposed to just know that the person sitting in front of us is more important than the person on the other end of a cell phone?  And my judgmental critical mind was off and running!

And, then, well, it took a couple of years, but what goes around comes around, and my harsh judgment came back to bite me, as I was sitting with my research assistant, in a delightful coffee shop, talking about how brains work, when my own cell phone rang, AND I ANSWERED IT!!!!  Go ahead, judge away.

Yes, I know, I should – and do – know better.  But just like Pavlov’s dogs who drool at the sound of a bell, we human beings are conditioned to jump when the phone rings.  It takes great presence of mind to override that conditioning.  Now that cell phones are ubiquitous, we’re given lots of opportunities to practice not answering the phone.  O, of course, it has to first occur to us.  But when I see someone answer the cell phone in an inappropriate place and time, I try to be kind.  It’s hard to resist!  We’ve had years of conditioning!

I can remember the first time I deliberately ignored a ringing phone.  I was in high school, and it made me so anxious, I paced the house.  Walk past the ringing phone in the kitchen, through the dining room, the living room, by the front door, around the stairs, by the family room, back to the kitchen, over and over and over.  I physically felt horrible – sweaty palms, racing heart, panting, as adrenalin coursed through my veins.  Was my life in danger?  No.  Would the world come to an end if I did not answer the phone?  No.  My brain KNEW  there were lots of good reasons I should not answer the phone. For starters, it was my ex-boyfriend wanting to discuss our break-up and get back together.  Which was a bad, bad idea.  My brain knew it, but my body wasn’t so sure.   And it felt like a war was raging inside of me.

We underestimate just how conditioned we are to a whole host of stimuli in our worlds – sometimes for good, sometimes for bad.  And we underestimate the power of those triggers, and how much energy it takes to resist.   Our brains are quite adept at developing minds of their own.  Maybe you saw The Office episode when Jim, in a few short trials, conditioned Dwight to reach for a mento every time his computer restarted.  Then, after an hour, when the computer beeped, Dwight reached across the desk for the mento, and Jim asked, “What are you  doing?”  leaving Dwight confused as to why his hand was hanging out there in mid-air.

In the age of cell phones, we answer without a second thought, and we end up being rude without even meaning to.  Pavlov was the first to prove the power of conditioned responses, but the depth of them is amazing – Because sure, we say we answer the phone because it might be an emergency, or maybe we just say, “Hold on a minute, let me check this to see if I need to answer it.”  But mostly, answering the phone soothes the anxiety that erupts when we don’t.  Again, practice practice practice.  And kindness, when we spot others trapped in the conditioned response.  Their brains learned well!  If only their minds could take charge.


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