Once each week, I spend four hours in a tiny office on campus. All the windows are covered; the door is made of metal and requires a code to open. I sit at a station with a computer and a phone. My job is simple. The phone rings. I answer it.
At the suicide hotline, I have two tools: voice and silence. I have learned when to speak and when to be quiet. I echo emotions, diction, volume, pitch. The technical term is tone-matching; I prefer to think of it as harmony. People call for every reason you could imagine and many you couldn’t.
During my first shift, two years ago now, I dreaded the shrill alarm of the telephone. My hand trembled as I lifted the receiver. Who was on the other side, waiting for me? Now I love the surprise. I welcome the blinking red light, the ring, pleading and insistent. I sit quietly in that strange place. Secret windows on other lives open before me, then vanish. I will never know their names or see their faces. I have only a voice that comes to me riddled with static, beaten by wind, drowned by traffic. Sometimes I hear the croak of a television or the chirps of children playing.
Each call is a dance with a stranger. Sometimes it’s tender, sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to vomit. Sometimes I just sip on weak coffee and share in the sounds of two human beings breathing, not saying a word. Sometimes I struggle to understand somebody. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to someone I’ve known my whole life.
The service I provide is both infinitesimally small and unfathomably large. Sometimes I feel like I helped somebody, sometimes I don’t. I rarely know for certain. I can’t fix desperate poverty, crumbling marriages, or intractable addictions. I can’t cure illnesses or mend hearts. I can’t fix anything.
I can only do one thing, faithfully, over and over. I can listen. I can echo. I can be there, a companion, a witness, for a few minutes of existence. The phone rings. I answer it.