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.
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.