Back in 1988 I was a Junior COBOL Programmer for a Life Assurance firm in South Africa. One of the secretaries in the organisation, let's call her Grace, because, well that's actually her name, was particularly prickly. One of those cynical, sarcastic, unhelpful, glaring type of people.
She never left her desk to go to the canteen. She worked alone. Came precisely on time in the morning and left promptly in the afternoon. And few dared approach her for help. In fact no-one greeted her in the morning, neither did she greet anyone. Just sat down at her desk and busied herself with (seemingly) endless work.
When she was mentioned by others, no-one had anything positive to say. Common terms ranged from “unhelpful cow” to “downright bitch.” Her dress was ridiculed. Even her morals came under salacious fire. The common opinion was that her bitterness and obvious loneliness was a direct result of her biting attitude. She got what she deserved.
Which wasn't good enough for me.
So I made it my mission to befriend Grace. A zealous 21 year old whippersnapper naively trying to swim against the flow with a bitter woman a decade my senior. For purely platonic reasons. Whilst trying to maintain my friendship with my peers in a world of derisive remarks.
It took time. 3 months of walking out of my way to greet Grace on the way to my desk in the morning. Another month of inviting her to a coffee break. I used my every secretarial need, from stationery to appointments with superiors, as an excuse to ask Grace for help, despite her not being the secretary for our team. The beauty of that approach was that no matter her attitude, the job would be done, and I could shower her with gratitude.
Ever so slowly the cracks in her armour began to appear. I'd share a joke, that would fall flat, or an opinion on current affairs that would be greeted by a harrumph at best. But little by little our chats became more than work. Then we shared a coffee, and finally she agreed to leave her desk to chat over sandwiches at lunch.
Over 6 months we became friends, at least good acquaintances. Grace was still cynical and negative about everything. The government, the economy, the company we worked for, her superiors, not to mention everyone in the company who showed her such scorn. But she had a wicked sense of humour. And when she smiled it was as brilliant as the sun breaking through storm clouds.
One night at about 9pm she rang me at home, hysterical. She was about to commit suicide, and there was no-one she could tell apart from me. No one who'd notice her missing. So she got my home number from the company contact list (as a programmer I was often on call) and called, essentially to say goodbye to the one person she felt might even notice, if not care.
To say I was incapable of helping is an understatement. I was a young, arrogant technologist. Not a psychologist, or even counsellor. I had no training in counselling. Only the sense to refer her to a professional. So I listened and cried with Grace, then got her to agree not to do anything for one hour. Whereupon I called my Youth Pastor, who called her – yeah these were the days before 3 way phone conferences – and he counselled her.
In that chat before handing her over to my Youth Pastor, Grace told me she had been systematically abused through her childhood, then abandoned by her abusive family. She had been battling depression, alone, for almost 15 years. So she knew that you couldn't trust anyone. That the only kindness people ever showed was because they wanted something from you. From a beautiful, raven haired woman like her, typically sex.
I can't imagine the strength it takes just to go on by yourself in that mental state. Not to mention every interaction at work to be one of derision and antagonism.
Grace continued was at work the next day, and we continued to lunch together. The night of hysteria was never mentioned between us. But she was different. Less negative, more helpful. Her attire of corporate black saw muted colours creeping in. And before long she was lunching with other secretaries.
We maintained a repartee, but more and more she socialised with her peers.
Shortly after that the company was bought and saw massive restructures. I left to join the Baptist Youth Of South Africa's WOW Team and we parted ways.
I only saw Grace once again. We bumped into each other in the Sandton City shopping mall, shortly before I was to go for musical and evangelism training. Despite the both of us having plans, we dropped them and lunched together. Grace told me of the turn around in her life. Of falling in love, and getting engaged. And she wanted to thank me, in some material way, for saving her life.
Of course, I'd done nothing of the sort. But the lesson has stuck with me ever since.
Those that are hardest to love, often need it the most.