I was working for Royal Mail and staying in a small hotel in Norwich for a couple of days. I had stayed there many times
before and was on first name terms with most of the staff. After dinner I went into the bar to have a drink when I noticed that the lady serving me, normally a cheery sort, was looking a bit upset. She was red round the eyes and had
obviously been crying, though she did try to smile as she welcomed me back and poured my pint.
I commented on her apparent distress and she told me that her ex-husband had just died and that was what had upset her. At this point I became very British, muttered some well -meaning words of condolence and was about to retreat to a distant table when I realised that she had said “ex-husband”. So why was she so upset about his death? They hadn’t been that close for some time, surely? I was worried about prying, about intruding on her privacy, so I didn’t want to ask in case I upset her more. But I’m a curious sort of person (I’m a writer, I have to be) so I asked her.
Well, it was like a dam bursting as years of emotion flooded out. She talked for about an hour and all I had to do was listen and make sympathetic noises from time to time. It was a complex tale of strong emotional ties and mistakes that could have been rectified but never were. It was the story of a marriage break up and a love that had never died.
Eventually she ran out of words so I escaped to my room and didn’t really think too much more about the matter, until the next morning. As I was leaving the hotel to go to work the receptionist gave me a letter that had been left for me
the night before. Curious, I opened it at once. It was a few short lines from the lady behind the bar. To the best of my recollection it said:
“Thanks for listening to me ramble on tonight. Everyone has been very kind, but no-one actually wanted to hear about Geoff, except for you. It was really appreciated and it made me feel a lot better.”
So, had my curiosity not got the better of my British manners I too would have left her to suffer in silence.
But that’s what we do, quite often. We worry about doing the wrong thing, or saying the wrong thing, so we don’t do or say the right thing. We don’t want to intrude; we don’t want to cause offence; we don’t want to be a nuisance; we don’t want to “get in the way”. We’re happy to be part of the solution, but are actually more concerned about becoming embroiled in the problem.
We say “ring me if you want to talk” instead of picking up the phone and talking or, better still, visiting.
We say “If there’s anything I can do just ask” when we should be going round there to see if there’s anything we can do. There probably is, even if it’s only making a cup of tea or baking a cake.
In other words we place the responsibility for action on the person who is least capable, at that moment, of taking
responsibility. We place it on the person who is suffering, instead of taking responsibility onto ourselves. We’re afraid of doing wrong, so we don’t do right.
Does this sound familiar? Or is it just me?