Recently my partner and I were sitting at a small table in the lobby of a retirement residence. The table was one of eight or so set around a large circular staircase. Our table was pushed up against the back of the staircase. Out of the way.
We were waiting for the sales agent to arrive to talk about my father’s application to the facility.
As we talked, a resident squeezed her way under the staircase, pushing our table forward. “Anyone sitting here?” She pointed at an empty chair. “No, the chair’s free.”
“Can I join you?”
We agreed. Reluctantly. Another resident had just interrupted us to tell us she was “dragging her feet.”
“I worked in banking for over 20 years,” she’d said. “Never late. Now I drag my feet every day.” She’d laughed. She’d walked on, dragging her feet.
The new intruder sat down at the table, newspaper in hand. We discussed my father. She scrutinized the front page of the Globe and Mail.
“What is this?” she pointed to the word Khadr.
“Omar Khadr. The man the government is compensating.”
A couple of minutes later she asked about a headline concerning protests in Hamburg at the G20. Again I dismissed her comment and renewed our conversation about my father. The woman moved to another table.
A few minutes later, she was back. She said she hadn’t been able to hear everything we were saying. I told her we were talking about my father. We were waiting to see the sales agent.
“Is this word,” she pointed to Khadr, “the name of a person or something else?” “A person,” I said. “Omar Khadr.”
She sat down again. “I read a lot,” she said, “mostly about spirituality but I want to know more about the world.”
I had a choice to make. I had options: Ignore her. Insist on our need for a private conversation. Move to a different table, or, ask myself the question “What would it be like to be her?”
I’d been reading The Arbinger Institute’s The Outward Mindset: seeing beyond ourselves. The Outward Mindset asks us to consider the needs, objectives and challenges of others; to get out of our own way to make room for other people; to take responsibility for the impact our relationships have on others.
I chose the last option. In a brief moment of reflection I came to the following conclusions: need: the woman needs to talk; objective: she wants to connect with someone (us) to talk, to know about the world; challenges: she’s a residence in a long-term care facility. She may have trouble finding people to connect with. She may be lonely. She may have mental health challenges.
“What’s your name?” I asked the woman.
“Asha. I read a lot about spirituality,” she repeated. “But I want to know more about the world.”
“Me too,” I said. “It’s very important.” We talked about Khadr and the G20. We laughed about something.
The sales agent arrived. “There’s Jessica,” I said. “Nice to meet you Asha.”
“Nice to meet you too.” We shook hands. We got up from the table to head to the sales office. Asha got up.
“Oh, there’s – ” she said. I didn’t catch the name. Newspaper in hand Asha headed toward a fellow resident.
I’m quite sure Asha will not remember our brief encounter. But she might have if I had been less inclined to make room for her at that moment. If I had seen her as an intrusive bother with no sense of boundaries rather than Asha, a person who wanted to know more about the world and thought that maybe we could help her out.
If I had continued to dismiss her, ignore her or worse, the memory of a bad encounter could have affected her and also me. Others who were watching the scene unfold may have also been affected.
I waved to Asha as we left the retirement home. I felt I had made a small step toward understanding the importance of an Outward Mindset and gained a sweet memory of Asha who needed to talk.
Anne Martin is the Director of Restorative Practices with Shalem Mental Health Network