After a serious accident, a client unexpectedly found himself in a rehab facility. Most of the other patients were quite a bit older than him, and in more advanced stages of decrepitude. He confided to me his first thoughts, I am not like them, I don’t belong here, were swiftly cleared away—when he called a nurse to wipe his ass.
We want to feel powerful, or even better than others, any chance we get. Not so easy with one’s ass hanging out, or in my case, my eyeballs.
Compliant does not describe the usual me. During a recent eye surgery however, from the twilight zone of an anesthetic that kept me just aware enough to follow directions, I did exactly as told; even as the sliver of a blade moved swiftly towards my eye, I lay perfectly still and looked up and to the right and straight ahead and to the right again. Even as the surgeon narrated his every maneuver to students, even as I heard one young intern say that she was going to be sick, even as the boss explained his decision to put in a few stitches, because these eyeballs on the table are so extremely long and oddly shaped, I remained obedient and reserved.
But here’s the thing. I was drugged. I did it from a happy place. And while appropriate in this context, compliance can also act like the drug itself, under whose influence we neglect to act when circumstances demand we should.
Was this the case the morning after?
An intern I’d never met, with smooth pink skin and an officious, over-confident air, shows up to check my vision. His hand trembles ever so slightly as he removes the stitches. Am I his first? The surgeon, the big dude best guy in town, whom I chose for his status and experience, is not there. And yes, they let me know the reason—he is performing surgery—on an 8 month old. So I find out that no, the infant’s surgery wasn’t an emergency—it had been in the doctor’s schedule for weeks, the big dude never does the standard, post-op follow-ups and no, they never thought to inform me of that. Smooth-skinned doc determines that my vision is less than expected. Less than is normal. He shows grave concern and indicates that he does not understand why I am unable to read even the largest E at the top of the Snellen chart. He looks at his notes, clicks his tongue, reviews my charts, and suggests a corneal transplant. WTF! This is totally unexpected. Not at all what I signed up for.
Where is that happy place now? Where’s my detachment? Should I breathe? Act compliant? There are worlds of ways to respond, and none are right or wrong.
Instinctually, I reach for my scalpel. And demand to see the big dude.
Later that day, the surgeon calls. He responds to my distress by letting me know, with a certain smug tone, that he is very sorry he couldn’t be there for my follow-up, but he was operating on an 8 month old. Not again! I can’t believe he went there. The age of his patient was so beside the point—an obvious power move designed to make me feel guilty for usurping the important doctor’s time with my petty concerns. I reach for my scalpel. But just in the nick of time he corrects himself. Clucks empathically and offers to see me later that day or first thing tomorrow. Then he goes on to tell me that he looked at my chart, and that yes, the results may not be quite as good as hoped, but still, aren’t I ecstatic, it’s such a vast improvement from before?
Do I lash-out, teach him a lesson in power awareness, use mine against him? I can wield my scalpel, the one finely sharpened by my own psychological training, designed to get inside people. I could cut him where it hurts. Oh and there’s also the internet at my disposal. There’s Yelp or HealthGrades or even Angie’s List, just waiting to amplify my outrage. Ah—such easy access to delicious revenge.
Should I discredit this talented surgeon whose precision work and intensive training allows him to give sight to infants and improve my near blindness to a point that was impossible just a few years ago? Do I fault him for his poorly mentored intern, his bad management and his lack of people skills? Should I hold him accountable for the medical education that may very well have wounded his humanity?
But wait. I’m still in his care. What if he’s called to use his blade on my precious eyes again?
With this frightening thought, I’m moved to consider the whole, to do the work to make relationship. To attempt to connect and communicate in a way he’ll understand. I find a happy place, a balanced state of mind even sweeter than revenge.
Some lessons learned (and advice) from the other side of the scalpel:
· Identify and re-examine the places in your life where you have power and privilege by virtue of your role or position. (For me, professionally, I have power as a coach, therapist, mentor, teacher and supervisor. Some of my social privileges come from being white-skinned and middle class, with a partner, a loving family and good health).
· Take a closer look at the impact of your actions. Do people feel uplifted in your presence, or (do you somehow make them feel) less than? Notice (and curb) your backdoor bragging and defensiveness, when possible.
· Put yourself in situations where you are not in charge, where you don’t have power. Do this consciously and intentionally. Julie Diamond writes about this in depth in her forthcoming book, A User’s Guide to Power, Belly Song Press, 2016. (For me it means taking on professional challenges outside my known groups that strip me of my contextual rank or positional power. It also means creating connections with people who are very different than me, despite my fear of looking like an idiot).
· Remember that injury or sickness or surgery is always available to offer this low power experience. Aging helps as well.
· Never forget that certain people and groups are “under the knife” every day, due to their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc. In these circumstances, people make difficult choices about how to react to constant insult and injury every day. Don’t expect detachment, compassion or compliance from yourself or others in this situation.
· When possible, on occasion, whatever the circumstance, make relationship. Facilitate an interaction and learning experience for all.