Guilt

Today at work, I did something that made me feel bad.
I got a phone call from a Random Person who asked for me by name, having seen an article I’d written online. He wanted to talk about the article, and to bounce some of his thoughts on the article’s subject off me. Basically, he wanted to chat with me.
I don’t get many phone calls in the course of my job, and I generally try to keep all of my interaction with Random People restricted to email. This is because I dislike talking on the phone, and really dislike talking on the phone with strangers (or salespeople). But I took the call today anyway, not realizing that the person on the other end was going to want to talk with me at length.
He launched into his conversation immediately, and it quickly became clear that the person on the other end of the line was going to be… difficult. I’m somewhat ashamed that my first reaction was “Oh great, I’m stuck in a conversation with a wacko.” I wouldn’t quite label this person a “crazy,” but he wasn’t too far from it. This person, you see, had some very odd ideas about the subject at hand, and hardly gave me any room to speak. I listened as he talked on and on, mumbling the occasional “I see” or “Mmm hmmm” as I tried to think of a way to politely end the conversation as quickly as possible.
Eventually, after about 10-15 agonizing (for me) minutes, he seemed to realize that I was hardly participating in the conversation, and that I was showing a definite lack of interest in talking to him. I politely thanked him for calling me and sharing his, uh, “interesting” ideas, and hung up.
The feeling I had as I hung up, however, was not victory, or elation at being free from the unbelievably awkward conversation, or even anger about the stream of crazy ideas to which I’d just been exposed. I felt… guilty.
Questions are milling around in my brain as I write this–questions about how I should have handled the situation. This guy had some strange ideas, but he was a real person, somebody who took the time to call me up because he wanted to talk to me about what was on his mind. Were his ideas obviously somewhat crazy? Definitely. Was he lacking in social skills? Yes. Was it bizarre that he called me at work to tell me his thoughts? Yep. Was avoiding conversation and essentially hanging up on him a morally appropriate action? I’m not sure it was.
I knew within moments of talking to him that this guy needed help. Not medical help, or even counseling help. He just sounded like he’d been alone for too long, like he’d been cooped up in his house reading oddball websites for too long. At some point in the conversation (and this should give you an idea of the rambling nature of his monologue) he mentioned that he hadn’t been able to find a church home because he felt judged by the churches he visited. But that’s exactly what this guy needed–some friends, some fellow believers, a community of other real people to tolerate him, improve his social skills, and set his life back on track.
I wish I had said something kind to him, encouraged him to keep looking for a church home. I should’ve not let that conversation end with him feeling sheepish for calling me up and babbling at me. I should not have let the excuse It’s not my job to help this guy even enter my mind, much less determine my course of action.
But I did. Maybe I’ll do better next time. And I hope somebody else can pick things up where I dropped the ball, and help this guy out.

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One Comment

  1. Heather says:

    So you’re not good at phone conversations. With strangers who catch you off-guard. And you’re not good at shepherding them to church once they bring it up. And now you feel guilty.
    On the other hand, you let the guy talk to another human being, maybe something he hadn’t done for days. Maybe every one else he’s called up has cut him off immediately or hung up on him. Maybe they didn’t even bother to listen halfheartedly to his ramblings.
    You listened. And you gave feedback that told him you were tuning him out, that he was boring you. And he recognized this fact. That could be a major breakthrough for him, Andy, especially if he’s going through some difficult times. Maybe this realization finally dawned on him after weeks of his being miserable, wondering why his friends have backed off: maybe after he hung up he thought, “here’s this stranger who wrote (whatever it was that hit him so hard that he had to call you), and even he couldn’t tolerate me.”
    And, hope against hope, this causes him to think and eventually do something to improve his life.
    You did something just by listening. Maybe more important, you let him talk for 15-20 minutes uninterrupted. Sometimes a lonely person just needs to yammer to another person, even if his audience is half-there.
    So don’t feel guilty. He probably didn’t want your advice, he just wanted the guy who wrote something that moved him greatly to listen. Maybe your writing did the communication that your mouth couldn’t.

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