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Receiving in the Giving Season

Author: Karen Mead

I volunteered to decorate the Christmas tree for my local Samaritan group here on the island. Not for me the usual tinsel and baubles!

I carved some ears out of candle wax and cast them in ordinary silicon. I used the molds to cast more ears – out of candle stumps – I didn’t plan the realistic pink. Then I sprayed them with gold paint and glitter.

 I took the middle out of lengths of nylon string and replaced it with soft wire. Curled the wire around a marker pen and sprayed with glue and glitter to make sparkly spiral phone cords. The handsets were made with card and glue.

The fairy on the top got an outsized ear and a telephone.

Voila! A listening tree.

And here is the back-story:

Receiving in the Giving Season

Last year, when I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and a bit lost after our move back to the UK from Hong Kong, I went along to an information evening about the work of the Samaritans. I put myself forward for selection, did the training and the mentoring and I have been taking phone calls answering emails and texts 5 times a month from spring this year.

I don’t think I can exaggerate the difference this spur of the moment decision has made to my life and my out-look.

Firstly I have to say the other Sams are lovely – perhaps you would expect that, but it instantly gave me a circle of empathetic acquaintances and a few really good friends.

Secondly the training is excellent and it helps you hone your listening skills and gives you the confidence to ask the tricky questions you need to help people uncover their feelings.

Thirdly and most importantly, my goodness, what a privilege it is to be invited into the intimacy of people’s inner-most thoughts. Yes, you do hear some eye-opening stories (for which the training and the support system helps you cope). You are there to listen non-judgmentally to people whilst they work out what they want to do with their lives, which may include ending it.

You come off every shift with your own problems put firmly in their place. Sometimes you drive home in the early hours of the morning elated because someone said thank you and really meant it. Even if a caller is determined at the end of a conversation that they are going to go ahead and take their own life, we can accept their self-determination and give them the space and respect to explore and say what cannot be said in public.

More often, you have conversations not with the suicidal, but with the chronically lonely, the sad and the mentally disturbed. You have talks late into the night which may be unintentionally hilarious or genuinely cheerful. Sometimes you cry – but you never let it show in your voice because it is never about you. People tell you things which remain confidential and you tell them nothing about yourself because this is their time. A rare, safe space, just for them.

Why do I do it? I think we all wonder that sometimes, but I can say truthfully it has given me so much. I am grateful for the constant reminder of how messy all human life is regardless of the superficial gloss. We are all lonely, lost, sad, bad and mad at various points. We are more alike than different and all those other clichés at which I cynically roll my eyes.

Often when I am talking to people who are stuck in fairly un-traumatic ways; lonely, bored maybe or stuck in some existential rut, I want to tell them ‘Go out and volunteer’. Get involved. Give away something of yourself and see how richly you will be paid back. For entirely selfish reasons I recommend it.



Ps: There are 22,000 Samaritans in the UK and their free phone line  (116 123) is a national number manned 24 hours a day throughout the year. When the phone rings the call may be answered anywhere in the country and Samaritans do not always use their own names which keeps the calls confidential on both sides.

Suicide is the most common cause of death for men between the ages of 20 and 49 and 1 in 15 of us will make a suicide attempt at some point in our lives.