Real Life Lessons

Let me be unkind for a moment, if you don’t mind. I feel like expressing my perceptions of a guy with whom I’ve shared space in the waiting room while lingering in anticipation of my radiation therapy. Don’t assume I’m simply unloading, though. I learn from myself, even from the most base aspects of my personality.

The guy, who I’ll call Redneck Gorilla, accompanies a wheelchair-bound elderly man. I’ll assume the old man is a relative. Redneck Gorilla, who reeks of cigarette smoke, sprawls on the waiting room chair in a way that resembles, in my mind. an octopus filling every available space in a small jar. Surely you’ve seen videos of octopuses squeeze into jars far smaller than you thought possible, right? Well, Redneck Gorilla fills every available surface of the chairs and then some. He sits in the chair, leaking his cigarette-laced effluvium into its fabric, watching country music videos on his phone. I notice that much of the music seems to promote the “good ole Southern boy” persona, with an occasional reference to Neil Young and the fact that “Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” I’ve seen this thirty-ish guy several times and, without fail, his demeanor is generally what I’d call macho-surly-unfriendly. His response to my “good morning,” twice, was to glance up and glare, then go back to his phone. I call him Redneck Gorilla out of pure, unmitigated bias. Redneck because of both his behavior and his appearance. He’s nearly bald, his remaining halo of hair shaved to the scalp, a perfectly respectable style; but, when coupled with his underslung jaw and his bloodshot eyes, he is, in my prejudiced eyes, the epitome of stupid and redneck, combined in one spherical package. I use the term Gorilla because I imagine his arms hanging down by his side, the hairy knuckles dragging the ground. Yes, I judged this character from his appearance and his willingness to share his stench with the rest of us in the waiting room. I am guilty. My judgment is unkind and reprehensible. Fortunately for me, the man he accompanied to the radiation center had his last treatment on Friday. Now, let me turn my harsh judgment of the guy on its head. Whether he wanted to be there or not, he was there for the old man. Despite my assessment that Redneck Gorilla is among those humans whose redeeming features number in the low single digits, the guy was there for someone else. Maybe his demeanor was shaped by the fact that he’s afraid of losing the guy who he accompanied to radiation. I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he is, at his core, a good person. Maybe. But he does a fine job of hiding it beneath a veneer that I find offensive. I try to be better than I am. Often, though, I fail miserably. How would I react, I wonder, if I learned Redneck Gorilla is facing his own cancer diagnosis, a far worse diagnosis than mine? I think I would even more embarrassed at my pettiness than I am.

Now, after going through the exercise of judging someone else on the merits of appearance, odor, and limited interactions, it’s only fair to consider how other people in the waiting room might judge me. I’m not very talkative, so I can see how my limited verbal responses to the few comments others have made might be considered unfriendly. I can envision a guy thinking to himself, “This guy acknowledged my comment, but that’s all. He seems to have made a point of letting me know he wasn’t interested in talking to me.” That’s not correct, but he might understandably think so. And he’s not alone. I’ve had very few conversations with others waiting for treatment. I’ve listened to a couple of them talk about their conditions and their treatment, but I’ve not shared much with them. Perhaps they find me stand-offish and unfriendly. I wonder what names they might have for me: “Aloof Goof.” “Silent Scumbag.” In reality, though, I doubt they have any names for me. I doubt they even paid much attention to me. It’s not about me. People in a waiting room are not placed there to scrutinize me and pass judgment on me. That’s my job. 😉 I’m the one who’s behaving like the jerk I am judging.

There’s an aphorism: “You never know what someone is going through. Be kind. Always.” It’s one I try to follow because I believe it merits a place in my consciousness. People can behave in ways that bother, offend, or otherwise annoy me/you for reasons beyond your capacity to comprehend. Yet try as I might, I fail to acknowledge that reality in my day-to-day life. By judging the guy who smells of cigarettes, I make all manner of assumptions about him, yet I know virtually nothing about him. It bothers me that, despite knowing how I should be and how I should behave, I nonetheless act in ways contrary to what’s “right.” I suppose regular self-reminders are in order.  Unfortunately, even with regular reminders, I keep running into people who challenge the generosity of the aphorism mentioned above. I keep encountering people who just seem to be pigs. And I react, at least mentally, accordingly. But, still, I have to remind myself that I don’t know what they’re dealing with. I have to try to be compassionate. I have to try to exercise some empathy for whatever plight they may be facing.

It’s easier to be judgmental than to be kind. It shouldn’t be. Spreading kindness by being kind is more likely to make a livable world than spreading judgement by being judgmental.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
This entry was posted in Cancer, Civility, Compassion, Empathy, Health. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Real Life Lessons

  1. I’m far less than stellar, I’m afraid. And a “work in progress” for sure!

  2. Thanks, Liz. I often struggle with it to a greater degree than I’d like.

  3. Hopester says:

    I laughed out loud at the term “Silent Scumbag”. What I love about this post is your honesty. We all act less than stellar while wanting to be kinder than we often are. Works in progress.

  4. lizardek says:

    Great post and great reminder, John. I think we all struggle with this (or at least we all do it, and I should hope we all struggle with it) to one degree or another.

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