At my job I receive at least ten calls every day regarding people’s estates: the distribution of someone’s property after they die. The company I work for is entrusted with a lot of people’s financial assets; when a “client” dies someone needs to call us to inform us, and it is my job to guide them through the legal procedure to transfer the assets. Usually the caller is a close family member. My first duty is to provide the best possible customer service, which often feels like pastoral care, in the sense that first I need to exercise a lot of active listening skills, then the person expects me to tell them what to do next.
A lot is communicated in between the lines: a middle-aged lady calls because her father passed away last week, and she already has the documentation ready: I can tell her family was diligent and they have been facing the father’s imminent death for a while. Her voice is not shaken, so either she is holding it up, or she mourned his death before it happened. Old age is harsh. Plenty of other people only manage to call a year or two later, and I prefer to believe they needed time to deal with it, rather than assume they were lazy or neglectful. I often speak to old widows who have not touched their husband’s assets for ten years, but are calling now because they are preparing their own estate for the near future.
Every month I spend a few hours at the hospital receiving a dose of antibodies, donated by other people, so my body is able to function and not crumble under whatever disease comes my way. I am grateful and indebted to the kindness of everyone who put a system in place that has allowed me to live past 23 without driving me into bottomless debt. I know that in other places, not far from where I live, my condition would not only make my life difficult but also drive me into increasing debt and poverty, making it even harder to want to keep going yet another month. When I think about it, receiving antibodies is not too different from receiving food, clean water, and shelter, thanks to everything people around us have done and built. Most of us would not survive long if thrown into the wild: I would just die faster. In the end, we all die. Yet the time we do live is meaningful, to ourselves and to those who love us. We have this time to live thanks to one another. Every person has received so much not just from nature or from God, but from humanity, from every neighbor, from our collective ancestors. Much for honor and gratitude, but also much to be ashamed and to regret. We have much to learn from each other, but also much to unlearn. In all this ambiguity, we are living life together and we need each other if we want to keep doing it.
Yet this is all so easy to forget every day. When I receive calls, all I have is a voice coming from a machine, without a face, without a past or a future aside from whatever concerns our business. A voice that can be angry, kind, or simply collected, without eyes to look into, without skin, without wrinkles or laugh marks. Myself, I become an excellent customer service agent, asking precise questions, reformulating them if they are not understood, saying thank you for everything and using words that communicate utmost respect. Most people ask my name, but I only give my first name. I do not really exist in their world, I am simply the voice of the company I work for. My personality, attentiveness and clever quirks are reduced to the great service by Corporation Inc.; I am paid to do that thirty five hours of my week.
It takes a lot of effort to remain conscious of the human being across the line, someone whom I just met, even if impersonally, who needs my help to get something important done: if anything, something important to them. I have done this all day for the past few months, while they are often calling for the first time. I know every detail of what they need to do next, but they have no idea, and I need to discover what they do not know before I explain it to them. It takes a lot of effort to not let that experience be soiled by remembering that even though I am the only contact many people have with Corporation Inc., being crucial to its functioning, I am expendable. I am paid its lowest wage since it is an “entry-level job”, and there are plenty of people receiving the surplus of the value I generate, through profit distributions where those who have most receive the most, accumulating all the wealth with those already wealthy. It takes maybe even more effort to not grow mad knowing that none of this would be in place if we just stopped taking it seriously; that we are inflicting this on ourselves and each other by believing it is the only way; justifying lay-offs, wage stagnation and exploitative measures that exploit poverty in the name of “corporate needs”, even though Corporation Inc. does not even exist, much less have needs. Like the ancients who sacrificed their own children to idols they built from wood and stone, we serve imaginary entities we created with paper and pen.
So I focus on my experience, in the now, at least until my shift is over. Here is someone calling who needs my help. It is up to me to decide if I will acknowledge them as persons or reduce them to just a “client” or an obstacle to get over with. The other day a man called for his father’s account, and when I asked his legal authority to deal with his father’s business, he answered “I am his son”. Of course, being a son is no legal authority, specially in the financial market, so I insisted until he reluctantly said: “dad passed away; I am the estate administrator”. It was up to me to be annoyed at how he made me waste time instead of being to the point, or instead, choose to acknowledge how hard it must have been for that human being to voice that painful fact out loud. It was up to me to drift through the call and just get things done, or remember there was a divine human on the other side, with feelings and hardship, whether he also acknowledged me there or not. As for telling them what to do, all I could do was explain their situation and their options. I cannot decide for them.
I need to believe life and human relationships as I know them are not as good as it gets. That helping others is a better motivation than greed. I need to believe life can be better, that it is possible to serve God and not Mammon. Even just serving my neighbor is already good enough. I know my neighbor needs it, because I need it. I need to believe this to face next month, even as I am reminded, at least ten times a day, that plenty of people won’t.
About the author: Lucas Coque is a theology student at McGill University in Montreal, QC. He considers himself an agnostic Christian existentialist, and wishes to make progressive theology accessible outside of academia.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash