Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I dare you to say the wrong thing

This week I took my son Patrick to the dentist to get his 12-year-old molars sealed. He's been going to Dr. Jones, a pediatric dentist, since he was three. This visit went much better than the first one. Patrick bit him! Patrick didn't understand that it's OK for the dentist to "tickle" his teeth.

The billing clerk, a woman I've seen at least twice a year for the last 13 years, was dressed all in pink--a pink ballcap, a pink hoodie, and the telltale buzzcut to go along with it. I asked her, "What's with all the pink?" Turns out she's being treated for cancer, and wearing pink is a way, besides the hairstyle, to begin a conversation. Apparently, her tactic isn't going as expected. A lot of people glance at her and literally run the other way. Others come back the second time around and ask after her health. Most say nothing.

Cancer sucks. And, it turns out, it's lonely. It would be easy to ascribe the worst motives to the "currently able-bodied," as one of my yoga students recently put it, as a skulking, cowardly lot who act as if cancer's contagious. Maybe that's true in a very few cases. But it's more likely that people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they opt to say nothing at all.

But that's exactly the wrong thing to do. It's like the co-worker whose child was killed in a car accident. You don't know what to say. You might say the wrong thing and make things worse. You don't want to provoke a grief response. But come on, who are you really protecting? So many people are facing life-threatening illnesses or have suffered losses that you'd have to be living in a bubble not to have met someone going through bad times.

So I dare you: Go ahead, say the wrong thing. At least you'll show you care. Better yet, start the conversation, and let them talk. The worst that can happen--you might learn something. And someone who hasn't felt OK that day, or in the days previous, might feel better.

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