Friday, 18 February 2011

Thinking about the other

I had a phone call today - couldn't quite make it out, something about rents and housing benefit. It was a young woman - she did not introduce herself, she just launched into asking me this indistinct question. On second hearing it still made no sense so I asked her who she thought that she was talking to - thinking she'd got the wrong number. So she asked if I rented out properties and when I responded, 'No,' she said, 'Well you should have said that in the first place' and put the phone down.

I shouted an expletive to a dead line. Who on earth did she think she was? On calming down and after having said a silent apology to my neighbours, I reflected a while. I imagined that she was a young woman in a job that she didn't like, phoning up strangers and feeling less than confident. I began to feel sorry for her and perhaps a little empathy. I have certainly done jobs that I wasn't very keen on and felt that I didn't have the confidence to carry off the tasks I was charged with doing. Especially in my younger days. I was beginning to feel a little motherly towards this woman whom I had had the briefest of telephone encounters with.

Perhaps this was just a story that I had made up and perhaps it was far from the truth but the issue is that we often don't know the story of the person that we are interacting with. We don't know how much we have in common and we don't know what we might feel for them if we did know their story. And often we don't even know our own motivations.

In my fifties I now have a sense of being a bit of a mother hen - trying to look out for young people. It is a persona that I have grown/am growing into and feel comfortable with. I remember as an 18-year old on a rag (charity) hitch around the country with a friend, being picked up on our first night - a Friday - and taken back to lodge with our kind driver. He and his wife must have been in their sixties (or perhaps fifties - most people seem older when you are 18). Their children had left home - they had ample room for guests and it sounded like they were used to accommodating a houseful of young people. They fed us and looked after us like we were one of theirs - and we'd only just met them having begged a lift.

Now I have a sense of how they felt - they were parenting all the young people that they came across because they liked doing it - being with young people gave them a buzz and perhaps made them feel useful. Again I am making up the story. But that's how we understand the world through stories - real and imagined. I now feel a sense of kinship across the decades with these generous people and hope that I can show similar love and concern to complete strangers.

And so I wonder still about the young woman at the other end of the phone and hope that she can find a way to making phone calls which don't upset people, don't leave a sour after-taste and also don't elicit sympathy. Perhaps feeling sorry for her was not the best feeling but for me it was the best that I could do. That is the real trick to respect - turning feelings of sympathy to feelings of real connection and respect. To do this I think that we have to get to know one another.

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