“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
— Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I revisited an emergency last night.
Over spring break last year, my son had an emergency appendectomy. We were visiting San Francisco, with no support, no idea where a hospital was, and worried about why he kept getting sicker. Eventually, after numerous calls to local doctors, our primary doctor back home, and the emergency room, we decided to call a cab. We piled into the taxi, drove quiet streets to an unknown location where, after several hours, my son’s gangrenous appendix was removed. He left the hospital two days later.
It was a parent’s nightmare and unfortunately, last night I got to relive that feeling all over again.
I was at the Good Neighbor Center, a family homeless shelter. My job was to act as the overnight host for the families in case of emergency. Around midnight, one of the mothers woke me up. She was worried and agitated.
“I think my daughter’s having an appendicitis,” she said in frantic tones. “She just started hurting and it’s not getting better. She’s asthmatic.”
I asked if she had a car to get to the hospital – No. I asked if she had a friend who could drive her – No. I asked if she had money for a taxi – No.
I called the supervising staff who recommended that I call an ambulance. The dispatch operator took my message, patiently waited while I figured out the center’s address, dropped my glasses several times, and got the daughter’s basic information. The paramedics arrived shortly and gave her a preliminary diagnosis. As they walked out the door to the ambulance, a first responder asked which hospital they wanted to go to. The mother didn’t know. She was new to town.
The mother, daughter and paramedics left, leaving me alone in the silent glow of harsh fluorescent lights. It brought me back to our own emergency room trip. The bright lights of the triage room, the eternal waiting, the diagnoses and re-diagnoses, the confusion. Was it just the flu? Should we have brought him? How dangerous is the surgery? Will he be ok?
It wasn’t too hard to guess a mother’s thoughts on this night – her daughter’s pain, anxiety, fear, no money, no home, confusion. Even though this mother’s situation was more difficult than my family’s experience, it still felt strangely familiar.
When we share a common experience it’s easier to sympathize; easier to want to help; easier to put aside our differences, our religions, and our ideologies; easier to put on a new skin. Differences give birth to labels – immigrant, poor, stupid, rude, white, black, racist, democrat, republican, conservative, liberal, fat, skinny, ugly, lazy – because we have a basic need to fit people into our world view.
The more insular our lives are, the less we’re going to have in common with others. The more we blindly cling to our patterns, the less we will venture outside those ruts. We’ll stick with the same people, and the different people will look more and more different. When we stay wrapped up in our cocoons, we see the world filtered through our own silky lens. It’s a distorted view.
But when we’re willing to step out of our comfort zone, willing to stand up and offer a hand, we build up experience. In new places, new ways, for new people. That lets us build shared experiences, giving us more in common with others. And that helps us better understand other people’s motivations, desires, and needs. Which helps us better understand ourselves.
It’s not easy to try on someone else’s skin. But when we do, their experience becomes our experience.
And our own skin will fit a little bit better.
Yesterday’s gift of time … Overnighted at the Tigard Good Neighbor Center … I’m also happy to say the daughter came back early this morning with her appendix intact. I hope both mother and daughter get some rest today.
My own experience is that once a parent, or any person, knows that kind of fear and confusion that you felt that night, life changes. There’s no going back. From that moment on, there’s a deeper level of understanding, compassion and willingness to reach out and do anything to help another in need…it’s a whole new world from that point on….at least it sure was for me. I’m a far better person because of that, but it’s still difficult when the memories get stirred up…but it’s for the better of all.