I am Jewish, which naturally means that my parents’ prime responsibilities were to feed me excessive amounts of food and foster my neuroticism from a very young age. “Put a coat on, or you’ll catch cold,” they warned me. “Eat yourapple, or you’ll get scurvy,” they warned me. And of course, “Never talk to strangers,” they warned me. I spent my entire childhood heeding the wise words of my parents. But when I was 18 years old, I rebelled.
For the past three years, not only have I been talking to strangers, but I’ve been devoting twelve hours every two weeks waiting for them to knock on the door or give me a call. I work for a peer counseling organization called Room 13 which offers “cookies, condoms, and conversations” to the Harvard undergraduate student body. The service offers anonymous, non-judgmental, confidential peer counseling to anyone who wants to drop in or call us on the phone.
It is impossible to predict what people will drop down to the room to talk about. Some come to talk about the exam next Tuesday that they’re “totally-going-to-fail-why-didn’t-Istart-studying-earlier.” Some come to talk about that guy who won’t text back. Some share dark memories, knowing Room 13 is a safe space where secrets will not prematurely leak to family or friends. Some come to make condom balloon animals or to consume gratuitous amounts of free Oreos. Some come to talk about depression and suicide.
Empathizing and listening to people with so many different issues can be difficult. I cannot always relate to or understand every emotional experience. Despite this, drop-ins and callers still feel comfortable sharing with me, even knowing that I occupy a different life situation.Some drop-ins stay only for a few minutes, but others stay for a few hours. I ask questions, they provide answers. Sometimes we don’t say anything at all. Silences are often more powerful than words.