The Set-Up

Today I visited a man named Joe in the hospital. (Actually, he goes by another name, but let’s call him Joe.) We had a very pleasant visit together. He demonstrated what I admire in a good conversationalist: a willingness to talk about his history, his ideas, balanced with curiosity toward his companion and the capacity to pause and really listen, with interest.

What do you carry into a visit, knowingly and unknowingly?

This was the first time I was meeting Joe. A friend had asked me if I’d be willing to stop in, having already recommended me to Joe as a friendly ear and gained Joe’s agreement to the visit. I told my friend I’d be happy to go, and carved a bare half hour out of my day to spend with Joe. When Joe and I met, we briefly exchanged backgrounds, and Joe told me about the stroke and fall that had landed him in his current home away from home. He talked about the sometimes agonizing process of discovering what changes had occurred in him as a result of the stroke and fall. In one week, he reported, he had been able to see an important new need that he now has, to speak to one person at a time, in order not to become confused, frustrated and angrily outspoken. He seemed grateful for having figured this out for himself. After a bit, Joe’s uncle came along, and we all chatted just a minute more. I left him in that good company.

When I got home, there was an e-mail waiting for me. My friend thanked me most sincerely for my willingness to visit. More to the point, he was writing to forewarn me about Joe’s lifelong anger and that I should be prepared for that potential. I missed receiving this warning before I made the visit.

Reading the after-the-fact warning, I had to ask myself: what would the visit have been like, had I received my friend’s email prior to going? I appreciated my friend’s desire to prepare me for likely possibilities. With the information in the email at hand, would I have walked in with a different look on my face, different body language, a different willingness around openness with a stranger?  Bottom line, would I have “set myself up?” Any answers are pure speculation, and also highly instructive.

I felt a guardedness arising as I asked myself, and noticed some apprehension mixed with care. I could feel my body tensing up in preparation for the imagined meeting. I wasn’t aware of any of these attitudes and body sensations being present in the real meeting. They didn’t turn out to be needed; Joe was having a good day. I wonder what kind of day he would have had if I had read my friend’s email and made it into a real set-up? It’s not exactly a matter of having or not having expectations in interaction. Advance information is useful; taking it into account is often wise, a great human capacity. But what if expectations cloud your view into who or what is actually in front of you? Checking in, and knowing for yourself what’s in your mind in the way of expectation, fantasy, unfounded or well-founded anticipation can keep the door open for meetings to happen in reality. It’s the best setting I know of for true meeting.



8 thoughts on “The Set-Up

  1. “Checking in” with one’s self is such a useful tool. I recently experienced anxiety and angst regarding an informational meeting I was scheduled to attend. When I took the time to recognize my reactions and thoughts regarding the subject, and bring in some curiosity about them, I found I was able to be present during the meeting, and open to the subject being presented. Thanks for the insight, Margaret.

    • OH, that irreplaceably valuable practice, the pre-meeting Check-In. So happy you had it in your pocket with you that day! cheers, Margaret

  2. Great reflection. This brings to mind a slightly different slant on this phenomenon– I have observed if a friend or someone I respect/admire speaks badly about someone, this inevitably leads to a bias in my own mind towards that person. Even knowing this doesn’t keep it from happening, though it can keep me from acting on it. But still the idea is now there, coloring my perception. So I’ve learned that if someone begins to speak harshly about someone, I may try to steer the conversation discreetly away from that topic, or if I feel comfortable doing so, just say “I respect your opinion a lot and for that reason would like to avoid hearing it so I can have my own reaction to so-and-so…”

  3. I think the potential guardedness that you describe if you had met Joe after receiving the advance info is an instinctual feeling. Although most of us would like to enter into introductions to new folks with no preconceptions, I think it would be an almost impossible thing to accomplish if you had been given a reason to be cautious. I think fear has a uniquely powerful place in the range of human emotions; maybe because of its historical usefulness in our survival… Anyway, I think it makes the practice of checking in with oneself before and during interactions even more useful, since fear is probably one of the hardest emotions to supress or disengage from once its usefulness has passed. Taking a moment to re-boot our launching point with someone may be a gift to both parties.

    • Yes, and to underscore that point because it is the tricky part: it’s not a matter of having or not having expectations. We’re talking about having a handle on them, knowing which ones are useful and which ones are a fantasy that has nothing to do with what’s real. Then, as you say, disengaging from the fantasy, whether it’s a beautiful or scary one. Thanks, Pam! ~ Margaret

  4. I am drawn to your story and I have a memory of what it was like spending brief periods with you…

    I’m reminded of the quote “I’m an ass, you’re an ass” by DeMello…and then simultaneously…something my mom says about ‘non-family’ that they may not like and accept you, once they get to know you better….I hear the words of a great zen master…not always so…(then again…would be easier for others if you behave predictably)

    Silence can be mistaken as indifference or arrogance…we live in a society that talks too much…and I get tired of the noise…there are kindred spirits tho…where we speak to each other more intimately…and words are just a formality…and cannot cause schism…

    • This was one of those sweet, clear, kindred-feeling conversations with a sincere stranger. Nice to hear from you, and think about you, Julee! ~ Margaret

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