After a month of trying to trace my late wife’s account numbers, policies, investments, and benefits, I can say one thing with certainty – I hate automated voice menus!
There are times when I think I would rather forfeit any moneys owing than deal with another supposedly helpful telephone menu.
First, I choose English or French. Fair enough. Then it warns me that the system has had to deal with an unusual number of calls because of the COVID-19 crisis. It encourages me to use the company’s online “Frequently Asked Questions” page instead of persisting with my phone inquiry.
I’d like to tell them I’ve already tried that. But their web page offers no buttons for “Report a death” or “Find details about a deceased person’s policy.” That’s why I called.
At some point, the synthetic voice will list a series of options, usually preceded by a caution: “Please listen carefully, as these options have been changed recently.”
None of the options deals with my needs. I press the number for the most likely option.
I’m warned that the call may be – or will be -- recorded for quality control purposes.
I wait. I get an endless loop of music, periodically interrupted by assurances that the company considers my call very important. Please wait for the next available representative.
Half an hour later, the next available representative is still not available.
Corporate voice mail systems are about as inscrutable as the Sphinx.
Once upon a time, I could press “0” to reach a living human operator. These days, the synthetic voice deals tersely with impatient callers: “That was not an acceptable response,” it says scornfully. “Press nine to return to the main menu.”
Real live humans
I have to say that when I do get through to a real live human being, that person has, without exception, been kindly and helpful. They restore my faith; they lead me along the right paths – and yes, I borrowed those lines from Psalm 23.
But I also have to say that, without exception, voice menus tempt me to quote the psalm immediately before Psalm 23: “Why are you so far from helping me, from hearing my groaning?”
I have great faith in individual humans, but very little faith in humanity as a whole.
I have yet to meet an individual who, face to face and eye to eye, will show no kindliness at all. Even if they can’t help, most living humans will at least offer a smile, a kind word.
But the more I see of humanity as a whole, the more I become convinced that we make bad decisions, thoughtless decisions, or no decisions, without considering long term consequences. We see potential benefits; we rarely see potential harm. Organizations act like spoiled brats; nations like schoolyard bullies.
Especially when we distance ourselves, by forming imaginary beings like modern corporations. A corporation is, after all, a legal entity created to shield individual owners from liability. Isn’t it inevitable, then, that corporations would use technology to shield their staff from having to deal with round pegs who don’t fit into square holes?
Maybe one thing we could learn from the COVID-19 isolation is that technology can never substitute for person to person relations.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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I hope I’m not violating any confidences in some of the letters below, about becoming refugees in life. Some of you specifically said your experiences were not intended for publication; others didn’t.
Ray Shaver wrote, “The last five lines in your article have been so true in my life since my dear love, Queenie, died a little over seven years ago. After Queenie died I found happiness in various volunteer roles and was quite content to live the rest of my life on my own with many rich beautiful memories of a close loving 61-year married relationship with the love of my life. I wasn’t interested in another relationship. Like you say, I was a refugee in uncharted territory. Then Janice came into my life, a woman with a beautiful, positive, happy outlook on life, always thinking about and caring for others while driving around in her power chair that helps her carry on as normal a life as possible under her very difficult circumstances. Fortunately we are in the same building only separated by three floors. No need now to wonder what I would be willing to discard and what I would cling to as if my life depended on it. I know it now because I’m there, and so is Janice.”
David Gilchrist: “I really appreciate your analogy of being a ‘refugee’ in many life situations. It recalls feelings of when I lost my wife, with a mentally handicapped daughter and a teenage son still at home.
“Now, my own nonagenarian mind is increasingly challenged to keep my own affairs in order, at the same time my present wife’s mind is at the point where I have to look after hers as well. One evening I found myself humming that old spiritual ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,’ and suddenly realized that it reflected exactly what I was feeling -- not sure which way to go, nor what the destination will be.”
Tom Watson: “As you know, two and a half years ago I was thrust into this land of living without my wife of 57+ years. Yes, it's new and it's strange, but we go on, one hopeful step at a time. Along the way, we do discover what we are willing to discard and what we need to cling to...not all at once but gradually, small bits at a time...and in so doing we learn a whole lot of new lessons about ourselves, and those are the most important lessons we ever learn. What does it mean, after all? In that sense we are the same as Abraham -- we will know the meaning when we get there. I hadn't thought of it in terms of our being refugees, but I do know that Life, from beginning to end, is a journey -- for Abraham, for you, for me, for every last one of us.”
Cindy (no last name given) said the column “was a touching piece, and it put refugees into a new perspective. There is so much they/we have to do differently, and I can feel it in this Covid-19 lockdown. I have a sense of what it is like to be in prison -- only a small one. I hope that this piece helps me to be more sensitive to the needs of the refugee, or someone who has been one and may still be acclimating to this our culture.”
Ginny Adams had a similar view: “Thank you for expanding my understanding of refugees. My grandfather came to this land as a refugee from Russia. Because of him, our family has grown and prospered in this new land, even with some persecution, hardship.
“But becoming single-again is a new refugee camp, I now see. I entered that refugee group 25 years ago as a divorcee, but now I'm no longer there. Both a new marriage and a new way of seeing how the tango for us needed ending helped me move on.”
Jim Henderschedt: “You are sharing changes in your life that I never gave thought to and that are opening my eyes to situations in life I never considered. Your sharing today helped me finally understand why it was difficult for church members to feel a part of small groups made up of couples after the death of a spouse. Your use of Abram's experience is most powerful and the conclusion -- knowing when you get there -- implies a journey of uncertainty.”
Isabel Gibson remembered that “My mother used to say that our whole lives were a process of building up a model of the world that reflected what we believed to be true. Then, when we found a piece that didn't fit in our model, when we learned something that contradicted [our model], we had to tear it down and build it back up to accommodate this pesky new fact.
“But there comes a day, an age, for most of us when we don't rebuild -- we throw out the new learning instead.
“It has some connection to your question, I think: What will we discard? What will we cling to?
“I hope you find your new land. I hope we all do.”
Eduard Hiebert mused, “Regardless of the metaphor one invokes to describe our state of being after the death of a loved one, as I keep gathering newfound experiences each time over my extending lifetime, I certainly agree that life after a death of a loved one, no matter how much anticipated, is quite different from what could've been or was anticipated beforehand.
“In this sense I wish you well as you keep encountering the new and unanticipated.”
In last week’s column, I referred to some religious practices that I felt were not acceptable in Canada. Judyth Mermelstein told me “that you've overgeneralized, intentionally or not…Female genital mutilation is not an Islamic practice -- Mohammed wouldn't have approved of it -- but a cultural one in some parts of Nigeria, Somalia, etc.”
Judyth also challenged assumptions about Hindu suttee, and Parsi Towers of Silence: “One might argue [that I’m] nit-picking, but I do feel obliged to speak up when people assume the worst practices are typical of those of other religions.”
She also tackled my question: “Are males from patriarchal cultures willing to give up their conviction that they’re entitled to rule the lives of their women and children?”
In Judyth’s words, “There, alas, we need to include a good many Canadian-born men, as well as many from other western countries.
I’ve written more paraphrases of Psalm 23 than of any of the other 150. Here’s one that I may not have shared with this mailing list before. The thought came to me after a wearying day of traipsing through shopping malls.
God keeps a cool cafe. What more could I ask?
She provides a comfortable chair
to take the weight off my weary feet;
She puts up an umbrella to shade me from the sun;
She serves me iced tea.
Though I have battled with the crowds at the bargain counters,
though I have suffered the scent of too many sweaty bodies,
I don't care.
I know what's waiting for me at the end of the day.
An ice cream cone.
It drips over the edges, and I lick it up gratefully.
I close my eyes;
The sound system plays the gentle chuckles of waves lapping on a shore.
I am content.
I would love to sit here forever.
In God's cool cafe.
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalms available from Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)