Voice and Touch
[This post was originally published as part of my BluebirdFebruary creative nonfiction blog.]
I recently heard a story about Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller and well-respected mentor to many leaders.
In 1988, De Pree’s daughter had a baby who was born 15 weeks premature, and very small, at one pound seven ounces. She was given only a slim chance of surviving the next couple of days, and to make matters worse, the baby’s father had left her mother a month before she was born. De Pree writes about the experience in a book of letters called Dear Zoe.
Visiting his granddaughter for the first time in the neonatal unit, he puts his wedding ring over her fist and slides it up to her shoulder, contemplating what it means when we say a child is perfect.
“Is perfection like the weather? Is constantly fine weather better than changing seasons? Where would we be without storms? Can we learn to sail without the wind?… Does being wounded make us less perfect or more perfect?"
He continues in his letter:
"While we were looking at you, a wonderful nurse named Ruth came over to chat. After a few minutes she turned to me and said, ‘For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father. I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger. While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.’
I’m sure Ruth’s suggestion is going to be very important in our relationship together. I also have the feeling that she has given me something enormously profound to ponder.”
Indeed, in the years that followed, De Pree wrote extensively about the importance of that connection between voice and touch, what we say and what we do, especially as a metaphor for leaders. It can seem simplistic, but I think the more dangerous naïveté is assuming we can separate the two at all. People are constantly growing from our words and actions, no matter what story they form. That’s how people grow.
This is challenging for me, as someone who loves to learn. I really enjoy studying cultures and theologies and philosophies of all kinds, and I know a lot about spiritual things. But knowledge is not a prerequisite for living a better life. As a result of all that learning, am I more loving than I was? Am I more generous? Am I more honest? Am I more likely to forgive? Do I worry less? Am I more at peace with myself and others?
Voice and touch.