Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Day I Forgot to Wear My Mask

I was walking down the hall at the office. A person new to the department was walking toward me. As I passed her, I nodded and smiled and uttered the usual throwaway line. “How are you doing?” (The variation is, “How’s it going?”)

You don’t expect an answer. You’re being polite. But you’re not committing yourself to anything more than hearing a “Fine” in return. You have work to do, meetings to attend, people to talk to, all of the general busy-ness of contemporary work life.

“Do you really want to know?” she replied in an almost anguished voice.

She knew the politeness-in-the-hallway code. And something had prompted her to step out of it.

I stopped, and said what I didn’t really mean. “Yes. Are you okay?”

For the next 30 minutes (we moved to her office), a story poured out that seemed more like fiction than reality.

She came from a well-known and socially prominent local family. Her parents were always somewhere else, traveling. Her brother was in parts unknown. She was caring for an elderly aunt who alternated between lucidity and dementia, often in seconds. The aunt was terrified that someone would get control of her estate and have her committed to an institution, and for a very good reason: she herself had made a career out of doing exactly that – getting control of elderly people’s estates and then having them committed. To add to the mix, my new work colleague was being stalked by a distant relative, who himself was trying to get control of her aunt’s estate.

And all I had asked was how she was doing.

We became friends, and she became friends with my wife as well. We talked. We shared outside-of-work writing projects. We’d have dinner. It was only after we moved to a new town that our friendship gradually lessened. But our lives, and my life, was immeasurably enriched by that simple exchange in a workplace hallway.

None of us wore masks. My friend was feeling desperate. I decided to listen.

In The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, authors John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall cite three categories mask-wearers fall into.

Those who try to convince others they’re doing “just fine.”

Those who are still searching for the next new technique to solve their issues and problems (and are the target audience of the self-help book publishing industry).

And those who wear the “pedigreed” masks – the postcard-perfect people who have everything together, no problems, no messy stuff in their lives.

The normal answer my work colleague should have made was “I’m fine, thank you” and walked on. But she didn’t. Her response caught me off-guard. I could have immediately donned a mask, probably the pedigreed mask. I could have listened politely and moved on.

But I didn’t. I could hear the desperation and even fear in her voice. So I listened.

And it changed my life.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Cure. To see more posts on this chapter, “Two Faces,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 


kchripczuk said...

That was an interesting part about my recent hospital stay, for a short time, because of need and inability to keep it all together, a lot of masks were just simply set aside. No one there knew my degrees, my former job as a pastor, my roll as the "good daughter." In that not knowing, not wearing of those masks, there was an incredible sense of communion and common humanity, which is what it sounds like you found with your friend.

Isn't it funny, we often rue those moments when we "couldn't hold it all together" and that fateful tear slips out, but so often those moments end up being our salvation and opening the doorway to communion (community) with God and others and even self.

Eileen said...

Thank you for the reminder to be willing to be "inconvenienced" That's where the beauty and growth are found.

Maureen said...

It's a gift to stop and listen. None of us do enough of it often enough.

jasonS said...

What strikes me as I read this is something I've experienced as well. You deeply connect with people for a season and it's wonderful then you move or they move or other things happen and the relationship lessens. I've often felt pressure to keep some of these at the same intensity or level as before, but instead, I should just rejoice that I had them for that season and they had me. Who knows where we might be in the future, but right now, you can't force it. Anyway, not the true point of your post (which was excellent as always), but important for me. :) Thank you, Glynn.

TC Avey said...

Thanks for sharing. We need more honesty, to be open and vulnerable, and also to listen.

So much can be gained by taking off our masks and letting others in.