“HE’S not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid.” In 1953, four years after Linda Loman’s famous soliloquy in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, the Rev Prebendary Chad Varah pioneered a wonderfully simple and effective way of paying attention to people to whom terrible things were happening.
The early years of the Samaritan movement he founded were centred on the dank, gloomy crypt of a beautiful Christopher Wren church, St Stephen Walbrook, a stone’s-throw from the Bank of England in the City of London. Volunteers would take phone calls and receive visits from the lonely, the desperate and the suicidal. As a young curate nearly 20 years earlier, Mr Varah had conducted his first funeral—a 13-year-old girl, who had started menstruating and thought she had some dreadful venereal disease. Confronting suicidal thoughts and sexual ignorance became the theme of his life.
In the 1950s, it was said that in the London area three people killed themselves every day. His simple insight was that many suicides could be averted if the despairing had emotional support in their darkest hour. This the Samaritans offered. He called it “active listening”, or “ befriending”. It was secular and non-judgmental: a kind of aural hug, perhaps all the more consolatory for coming from a stranger.
As Mr Varah himself put it: “There are in this world, in every country, people who seem to be ‘ordinary’, but who, when meeting a suicidal person, turn out to be extraordinary. They can usually save lives. How? They give the sad person their total attention. They completely forget themselves. They listen and listen and listen, without interrupting. They have no message. They do not preach. They have nothing to sell. We call them ‘Samaritans’.”
It caught on. Partly because Mr Varah had a flair for publicity; more importantly because they were soon seen to fill a need, the Samaritans spread rapidly in Britain, helped by a change of the law in 1961, before when attempted suicide was a crime in England and Wales. There are now 202 branches in Britain and Ireland with more than 17,000 trained volunteers. Through “Befrienders Worldwide”, founded by Mr Varah in 1974, there are now Samaritan operations in almost 40 countries across the world. He loved to travel, and visited many of them.
Many Samaritans who met him on his travels, as well as journalists and others, were rather taken aback by Mr Varah in person. They expected a saint-like figure of all-encompassing compassion. They found a charismatic, clever, argumentative, puckish and emotional man, who seemed obsessed with sex. Unshockable himself, he apparently enjoyed shocking others. He liked to tell young Samaritan recruits how he had dealt with a manipulative regular caller who had telephoned him at home and threatened to kill herself if he did not reschedule an appointment: “You do that, sweetie, and I’ll piss on your grave.”
Besides the Samaritans and his clerical work at St Stephen, Mr Varah had in the 1950s supplemented his income by writing comic strips, such as “Dan Dare” in the Eagle. He also had a lifelong career as a self-styled sex therapist. In Lincoln, in eastern England, where, after studying at Oxford, he went to theological college and had his first curacy, he made a name for himself with “marriage-preparation classes” including detailed sex education.
He counted himself an expert, he later explained, having enjoyed “amorous dalliances with most of the girls in my age group within cycling distance”. In 1940, though, he settled down in marriage and had five children. He would tell his marriage-preparation students that fidelity was a “privilege” not a problem. He later wrote a column for Forum, a sex magazine. Having said that he did not mind being considered a “dirty old man” at the age of 25, he liked to think of himself, when a nonagenarian, as the world’s oldest sex therapist, and claimed to have invented the permissive society.
Samaritan, heal thyself
As the Samaritans grew, he lost control and often found himself at odds with those leading the movement he had launched. Sex, typically, was one battleground. As might be expected of a number offering boundless sympathy and plenty of female voices, the Samaritans often attract telephone masturbators, a topic to which Mr Varah devoted one of his many books. Unlike some colleagues, he saw these callers as an opportunity rather than problem—if only they could get beyond their “presenting problem” and talk of their real troubles.
Mr Varah was an unconventional Christian. The title of his autobiography, “Before I Die Again”, which appeared in 1992, refers to his belief in reincarnation. He was also an unconventional Samaritan. Disenchanted with the movement he founded, he marked its 50th anniversary with a call for an end to its charitable status. He also had to be reminded that “founder” was not a post from which you can resign. Before his death, however, he was reconciled with those tending his legacy. They understood that he too was a human being, and that he thought terrible things were happening to his creation. Attention was paid. Millions are in his debt.
in The Economist