By Lee Wei Ling
I have a patient, R, who has been under my care since 2006. In 2008, she ran into a serious non-medical problem.
She worked for someone who ran tuition centres, and her duties included taking children from one tuition centre to another and calling the pupils' parents.
She was paid only $750 a month, but had to spend her own money to ferry the children by taxi, and she was not reimbursed for the telephone calls made on her own cellphone. She was naive, and her boss exploited her.
Strapped for cash, she took money from the fees paid by the parents to pay off loan sharks. She had intended to repay the tuition centre from her future earnings, but before she could do so, her boss found out.
He threatened to report her to the police if she did not reimburse him immediately. Although her parents repaid the money on her behalf, the boss lodged a police report anyway and she was charged.
I asked a senior psychiatrist to see her. After examining her, he agreed that she was in no medical condition to serve out a prison term.
The law firm I approached agreed to help her pro bono. Their representation and the medical reports helped reduce her sentence from a jail term to a fine.
A few days after she was fined, on Maundy Thursday in 2008, I received a tiny parcel from R. I opened it only on Good Friday after being prompted to do so by an e-mail from R.
The e-mail read in part: "I just want to say a big thank you for going that extra mile for me... My parents are very grateful for your continuous help and support all this while... You are really what the phrase says, 'A person sent by God'."
Then I unwrapped the gift she had sent. I found a clay tablet inscribed with the words: "It doesn't matter WHERE you go in life... WHAT you do... Or how much you have... It's WHO you have beside you."
I thought it ironic that she had described me, an atheist, as "a person sent by God". So I forwarded her e-mail to a friend, the managing partner of the law firm whose lawyers had helped her. "God sends an atheist!" I remarked to my friend.
He replied: "God does have a hand in everything, He works in wondrous ways and His unseen hand is everywhere."
Fearing I had offended a believer, I replied: "You are not an atheist? I guess I must be more careful to whom I make my cynical remarks."
"Don't need to be," my friend replied. "You are among friends here. Went to ACS (Anglo-Chinese School) for so many years, hard to be an atheist after that."
On May 12 that year, soon after R had given me the clay tablet, the deadly Sichuan earthquake occurred and my mother suffered a major stroke.
After she spent several weeks in the hospital with no sign of improvement, we brought her home and nursed her in her own bedroom. My father moved his bed to the connecting room, which was his study.
One day, I found the clay tablet that R had given me stuck on the door of my mother's bedroom. The Muslim Indonesian maid must have put it there, thinking it might bring us comfort.
My mother passed away in October 2010. My father moved his bed back to their room. The clay tablet is still on the door. R's epilepsy is under control and she has a job she is happy with. And I remain an atheist.
But I continue to take solace in this story, most especially at Easter. In this cynical world, there are still people who want to do what is right, even if doing so will not profit them personally, as my psychiatrist friend and the lawyers who defended R pro bono show. This gives me hope that we can develop into a compassionate society no matter what our religion, or whether or not we believe in God.
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.
[I find it surprising that she doubts that altruism exists separate from and independent of faith. :-)]
Monday, April 1, 2013
An atheist 'sent by God'
Mar 31, 2013