A friend from London came down to Brighton for the day. We met up, and over lunch she told me about her experience of becoming a volunteer for The Samaritans - the organisation you can phone up and talk to, when you have reached an emotional brick wall, and feel like giving up. See http://www.samaritans.org/.
My friend had recently retired, felt she had time and aptitude for the work, and contacted them with training in mind. She duly did the training course, but two things stopped her actually becoming a volunteer.
One was a basic gap in the service offered, which did not make sense to her.
The other was the denting of her self-confidence, through overzealous yet inconsistent criticism from a trainer, who (among other things) told her that she 'wasn't showing enough empathy'. And yet empathy was the very thing she felt was her strongest asset. For this friend had experienced quite a lot in her life, including school bullying, family disapproval and exclusion, and professional prejudice. A good deal more than I've experienced. But in any case, she was the patient, caring sort, who wanted very much to help others; and to be told that, despite these attributes, she wasn't demonstrating enough empathy to callers was a discouragement that deterred her from further involvement.
And what was the basic gap in the service? Well, according to my friend, the training drums it into you that you are going to take confidential calls from people with dire personal problems, but your function will be to listen with understanding and empathy, explore the situation with them, but not to offer any advice.
Really? No advice? And yet - supposing that I had some grave problem oppressing me, and I couldn't see any escape from it, and felt at the end of my tether, and was desperate enough to confide in a total stranger over the phone - the very thing I'd want from The Samaritans would be advice! I wouldn't simply want a listening ear. I'd be beyond straight thinking. I've have to be told. What do I need to do? I'd want somebody to explain to me what the best course was, however unpalatable, and to describe all the steps I'd have to take to get myself from this bad place to a good place again. Anything less would seem a waste of time, and at best a palliative to get me through one more night.
But, apparently, volunteers mustn't give advice. You can see why advice-giving needs to be be left to those with expert knowledge. A suggestion made by a volunteer to a caller, although it might be sensible and very well-intentioned, could launch him or her into a tragic sequence of events - with comeback on The Samaritans.
Even so, this insider's view of the training for volunteers was an eye-opener. I still feel I could phone them up and tell them all about my dreadful problem, but I see now that I mustn't expect to be told the solution.
'Oh?' you may say, 'What is your 'dreadful problem' then?'
Well, of course, I haven't got one at the moment. Lucky me! But like everyone else, I've had problems in the past, and no doubt many things will happen in the future to upset my equanimity. It's inevitable. That said, it's difficult to imagine any problem so awful that I'd need to pick up a phone to discuss it. I didn't when my marriage folded. I didn't when under huge pressure at work in the mid-1990s. I didn't when I realised my life was all wrong seven years ago, and I was getting an intense battering from partner and parents for trying to do something about it. I didn't when I was getting slowly crushed by the crippling debt on the Cottage, and was edging towards bankruptcy. What does it take? (And I do realise that you don't actually have to be on the point of suicide, only intensely worried)
It's so hard to see what would make me call The Samaritans. Perhaps it's because I've been insular and self-sufficient all my life. I suspect that, whatever the difficulty, I'd always prefer to work out my own salvation, and would always consider it a cop-out to seek outside advice.
Besides, I've made my present life straightforward, stable and easy to manage. And it's entirely in my own hands, with nobody calling the shots over my head. These are surely important factors that will keep me content. Nor am I fearful of personal tragedies that might come: I have already lost everyone in my life who was close enough to make me cry. There's nobody left to lose, and I can't be hurt that way any more.
Surely, then, I will be all right, now and henceforth, if I can simply avoid things that cause stress - such as relationships, financial entanglements, bad company, jobs and city living, all of which can wear you down, undermine your sense of self-worth, and drive you to despair.
Despair is the thing to keep away from. Hope is the thing to look for.
There you go. My recipe for a happy life. Live simply. Keep control. Avoid stress. Be hopeful.
Do I feel a best-selling book coming on?