Another of the reasons…
Today is my Christian birthday. On the 3rd of January 25 years ago something happened to cement my faith. This is the story of what happened.
In my 20s, I had a lot of short-term relationships. The standing joke among friends was that anyone I went out with was on six week’s probation – and few got beyond that.
Paul* was one such. We dated for a few weeks, then decided to part company but agreed to stay friends. And stay friends we did, until before long he was there at every gathering I went to, my friends had become his friends, my social life indistinguishable from his. All fine. Or so I thought.
But Paul then went into a depression. I fancied myself as a bit of an amateur counsellor so spent some time listening to his issues. I counselled him; he felt better; and I felt good that I’d helped him. All still fine.
But the mayday calls from Paul got more and more frequent and more and more unreasonable. He’d phone late in the evening. I’d cycle round to his house, talk for half the night; crash on his couch, then go to work the next day shattered.
It seems crazy in retrospect that I did not realise this was unhealthy, but it took a while to register that he was developing a dependency on me. And, truth be told, part of me encouraged that. I did want to help him, but I also liked the feeling of popularity and power it gave me.
Paul had sworn me to secrecy about his depression. He didn’t want other people to know. It was exclusive between me and him, and for many weeks I respected this, until one day I went out with friends on a rare occasion when Paul wasn’t present, and I blurted it all out.
My friends said: “That’s’ emotional blackmail.”
I tried to distance myself from Paul, but he grew more demanding. There were phone calls, and letters, and more phone calls. Their tone wavered between pleading to almost spiteful. I took to not answering the phone. My housemates covered for me. But still Paul somehow managed to be everywhere I went.
Christmas came and went, and we saw in the new year. Around that time there were a lot of tensions among our group of friends. There was backbiting and jealousy and people falling out, and I was as much to blame as anyone. In our 20s, relationships were intense, friendship was everything, and when anything threatened the stability of our social circle it could seem like the end of the world.
I knew I was unhappy but I didn’t know what to do about it. I also knew I had to stop seeing Paul but it was hard when he was, seemingly, around every corner.
On 2nd January a crowd of us were planning a night out at a nightclub in town. It was a regular haunt and many of my short-term relationships had begun there. There was someone I was interested in who I knew would be going. Initially Paul was not supposed to be there but when he learnt I was going he showed up.
Feeling trapped and suffocated, I proceeded to get drunk. And as I drank I had a growing sense of my own power. It was as if someone was saying, ‘forget about Paul, you can have anyone you want’.
When the last record came on I found the guy I was interested in and we had a prolonged snog on the dance floor. I was conscious of Paul’s eyes boring into the back of my head. After the song was over Paul caused a scene, pulling us apart. Amid his histrionics I walked off, drunk, angry and alone.
Once home, I stayed up for a long time, alcohol and emotions swirling round my brain. I was conscious once again of that feeling of power, even stronger now. As though someone was offering me a different way of being, a life without pain, without guilt, without compassion. A life in which I used others for my own ends and nobody could hurt me. And in my intensified state of emotion, all this seemed very seductive.
Next day I awoke with a throbbing head and a sense that something terrible had happened. I no longer felt powerful, I felt feeble and afraid. It was then that I started to cry, and to pray. Tears, and prayers, flowed from me. I prayed for Paul, for my other friends, for an end to the bitching and the back-biting. I said sorry for my part in the unpleasantness. I lay there, sobbing and praying, for about an hour. Then I looked at the clock radio near my bed. It was 11 am. I felt a kind of peace, and got up to start the day.
Unbeknown to me, Paul went home that night and swallowed 60 aspirins. But he didn’t die. And the reason he didn’t die was that a guy called Jono* was walking past Paul’s house that morning on his way to a local nature reserve where he regularly went bird-watching. On an impulse, Jono knocked on Paul’s door to see if he wanted to come. Paul’s flatmates, believing him to be sleeping off his night out, were about to go out for the rest of the day. Finding Paul, Jono got him to hospital for a stomach pump.
Later that day when I learnt what had happened, I phoned Jono to thank him for getting Paul to hospital on time. I said: “Thank God for you and your early morning bird-watching.”
And Jono said: “It wasn’t early morning. It was eleven o clock.”
Then I remembered the clock radio by my bed, the moment I had stopped praying, the moment I felt a sense of peace. Eleven o clock.
And in that instant I felt the whole weight of guilt and frustration and anger and confusion and helplessness that had dogged me for days lift off me. And in that moment I knew.
And I still know. The memory of that moment is indelible.
That night I went to bed believing that I would not sleep. Too much intensity, too many emotions. But I felt a sensation of being wrapped in something soft, warm and utterly benign. And I knew I could sleep in safety. That same feeling I had a few years later when seriously ill in hospital.
After that day many things resolved themselves among our little group. Paul got the professional help he so badly needed. Broken friendships were mended, hurts healed and harmony restored.
Sceptics would probably say the timing was coincidence, that people believe what they want to believe, that the way I felt was all in the mind. But the important thing was that I was more certain in that instant that there is a God than I have ever been of anything before or since. More sure than I am that I am sitting in this room now, typing at my computer.
And that, I suppose, is the miracle of faith.
* (names changed to protect identities)