This morning, I had a conversation with a government clerk (i.e. Agent 2) with whom I’ve spoken at length over the past few days. Today’s interaction can best be described as strange and uncalled for: Agent 2 lashed out at me after I pointed out that he might have erred in information he’d given me yesterday.
Agent 2 is allegedly a trained lawyer who kept insisting that I was not entitled to X because of reason Y. Upon making further inquiries with another agent, I discovered that Agent 2 had missed a critical detail that does, in fact, render me qualified for X. When I calmly asked Agent 2 to clarify, he could have chosen to check the regulations and apologize – end of story. Instead, perhaps concerned that I was questioning his authority, Agent 2 delivered a loud reprimand, during which he effectively announced that he is just doing his job, of rendering decisions – the details be damned.
Why do I tell this story? Probably because the exchange instantly reminded me of a similar interaction a few months back.
It happened on pain management group day. During our break, I went down to the lobby café and stood in line to purchase a cup of hot chocolate. When it was my turn, I approached the server/cashier with my request, at the same time handing her a twenty dollar bill. She immediately flew into a rage, gesturing wildly. Why does everyone give me their large bills? Don’t you have small change? How am I supposed to make change for everyone who comes here with twenty dollars?! And on and on. I stood there for a few minutes unable to answer. I didn’t know what provoked that onslaught of abusive language, so I offered to stand off to the side until someone else came by with enough change (there were about ten other people in line). That wasn’t good enough. She railed on. I continued to stand there speechless, realizing only that her invective was unquestionably disproportionate to my apparent ‘transgression.’
Looking back at the customers waiting behind me, I couldn’t gauge whether the surprised looks on their faces conveyed sympathy or anger. So I had to save myself. And I had to have faith that there was an underlying reason for the server’s rage, unrelated to the question of currency. She eventually relented, prepared my hot drink, handed it over and somehow managed to fish out the correct change.
I quietly leaned over to her and, in a calm but serious manner, whispered: I really hope that this is the most serious problem, health or otherwise, that you will ever have to deal with in your life. Because you work in a hospital, you never know what pain or life-threatening situation a customer coming to you for a cup of coffee might be dealing with.
Only after I’d walked over to the other side of the counter did I overhear the next customer admonish her: You didn’t see, did you, that the woman you shouted at was walking with a cane? Shame on you.
I was still placing a lid on my cup when the server walked over and apologized.
It could be a clerk on a phone, a server at a café or a doctor in his office, you don’t always know why you are being treated badly. Sometimes, people unknowingly project their own sadness, anger, bitterness, hopelessness on you. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned there, maybe there’s an opportunity for cultivating compassion. When I do catch myself at those times, I’ve tried to remember to breathe, count to ten, and acknowledge that the little unheard notes between the lines often speak volumes more than words spoken.
Note: Later today, Agent 2 left a message of apology for me on voicemail.