02 May, 2008

Would It Help If I Prayed?

Evangelical Christian: Oh, dear, how awful! I'll pray for you!

Me: You're going to get through this. Here's what to expect, and here's what you can do. You're strong. You can make it.

That was my day, sans evangelical.

I work in a call center. There are times when I'm not taking orders or troubleshooting service: I'm playing therapist. It's been that way for years. Most reps I know avoid that kind of talk, aside from "Wow, that sucks. Anything else?"

Not me.

I take some action, and I really have no idea why. After all, I'm an atheist, which means I have no love for my fellow human beings, no morals, and no desire to help anybody else, right? I mean, you have to be religious to be anything more than a selfish animal.

Funny, but it's the atheists and other assorted heathens I've met who leap fastest when it comes to responding to need. There's no agenda, just one human being caring for another, doing their best to help, because of empathy. They don't need a sky daddy telling them they'd better do this or else. They don't spend their time thinking of how they can use this person's awful situation to bring them to God. They just jump in and assist, no strings.

And it's hard.

Hard to sit there on the phone, listening while a person's pain spills out.

Several years ago, I took a call from a man who needed to order business forms. His voice was dead, flat monotone. After a bit, I couldn't stand it. Part of me was worried I'd done something inadvertantly awful, another part that my company had really pissed him off, and other bits suspected something worse.

The can of worms had to be opened. This couldn't go on. Look, I'm a showman on the phone. I once had a woman call her husband to pick up the phone so he could hear how funny I was. If I can't leave a person with a smile, I've failed. So I asked, "What's wrong?"

Silence. A sigh. Finally, "You don't want to hear my problems."

Oh, well, when you put it like that: "Will it make you feel better to talk about it?"

Silence. Then, in a small voice, "Yes."

"Then tell me."

He proceeded to spill out the story of his life, which I won't share here. Suffice it to say a country-western song couldn't have gotten more morose. The man had suffered tragedy after tragedy after tragedy, and here he was, having to soldier on, ordering business forms.

As I sat there trying not to sniffle too loudly, he said, "Actually, I do feel better." His voice took on life, and maybe a little hope. We completed his order. At least for that moment, I'd let him put the burden down, provided the sympathetic ear, and let him know about programs our company had to help out. Total strangers, but he's stayed with me all these years.

There's power in being there for someone, the unattached stranger, the listening ear, who has no agenda other than to try to make things a little better. I always justified it to my supervisors by saying there's a good business reason: those people will never forget that our company provided a sympathetic listener when they needed to pour out their soul. They'll never forget that someone was there for them. That's how I get away with doing my little bit. It's not the reason I do it. I truly do care for people. I want to give them the strength or release they need to carry on. Leave burden here. I may be a skinny little atheist, but I can help you carry it.

I did a lot of carrying this evening. And it wasn't just a simple matter of letting someone speak, with a few sympathetic noises thrown in. This time, it was personal.

Again, no details, just a sketch: I spoke to a woman who had been assaulted over the weekend. She was asking me questions about her service, and the reason for that came tumbling out almost inadvertantly. Evidence needed. Fine. We deal with things like stolen phones. Have the police contact us, and we'll take it from there.

Could have left it at that, but I whipped out the can opener, because I recognized the tone in her voice. I'd spoken like that once before. So traumatized, so shocked, that everything was unreal. A part of you is conducting business as if this is a normal transaction, and another part of you is screaming, How can this be real? How can the world still be this ordinary? Everything's different. Doesn't everything change?

I told her I'd been there. She clutched me like a life raft. We talked about what she was going through. I told her what steps to take, who to contact, what to expect. It gets better, I said, but first, you are going to go through these emotions, these fears. You've already done a lot of the right things. Here's what else you can do. Never doubt yourself. Never blame yourself. You are strong - you've already proven that. You survived. You'll come back from this, and things will never be the same, but they'll get better. You have the strength to get through. And you have people you can rely on, reach out to, to make this easier.

I listened to what she'd been through, how her life had changed, and cheered her on. Every step she was taking was the right one. She needed to hear someone, a stranger who had walked that path, say these things to her, because she'd started getting crushed by doubt. Never doubt yourself, I said to her. You've already done all of the right things. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. You're doing everything exactly right.

She left me nearly crying. I've spent most of tonight thinking about her, and wishing I could have done more, but I know I've provided her with the information she needs to get by. She's not alone anymore. Someone who's already been there has told her to have faith in herself. Someone who's been there praised her strength and courage. Having been there, I can tell you that she is incredibly courageous, and that she needed to hear someone say that. No punches pulled: it's horrible. It will be worse before it's better. But she's prepared for the hurdles now. And she knows that this is something she can come back from. She knows there's a nearly normal life to look forward to.

I could have prayed for her. I would have done it if she'd asked. This atheist has, at times, prayed to a god she doesn't believe in because the recipient of said prayers needed them. It tickles them: an atheist, praying on their behalf. The prayer goes like this: "God, I don't believe in you, and I don't believe you even exist. But this person does, and they needed me to talk to you for them, so here we are. God, I feel like a fool, but if it makes them feel better..."

She didn't ask. She didn't need prayers tonight: she needed assurance. She needed options. She needed a map to this horrorscape she'd been dumped in. All of these things, I could provide.

I know too many people who pray as if that's all that needs to be done. Prayer can be a good thing. It can be a gesture of solidarity, an affirmation of purpose. It can steel you for action and it can help you find the strength you need to take that action. But I see too many people stop at prayer. They're the kind who would have cut her off after the initial revelation by saying, "How awful! I'll be praying for you." And they would have expected that to be enough.

It wouldn't.

Don't leave it at a prayer. Take some action. Even if all you're doing is listening actively, it's still more than you would have done by just yammering at God.

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