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On the Contrary: Musing Her Way Through Life

Instead of judging a person's weaknesses, wouldn't it be kinder to recognize her strengths?

June 20, 2002
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Several years ago, I switched health insurance companies, and my new insurersent a uniformed nurse with short black hair to my house to conduct a healthassessment. We sat at my kitchen table and she officiously asked questions aboutmy health history.

    “Diabetes?” she asked, as if accusing me of illicit drug use. “No,” Ianswered. “Cancer?” Nope. “High blood pressure?” Nope.

When she’d completed the questionnaire, she reached into a portable metalcase and retrieved a white plastic cup. “Last thing I’ll need is a urinesample,” she said, sliding the cup toward me across the wooden table.

I took the cup to my bathroom, set it on the white tile counter, unzipped myjeans, sat down, and promptly started thinking about something else. Many longseconds later, I stood, rezipped my jeans, and, still absorbed in my thoughts,looked down to find the empty plastic cup waiting on the tile counter.

My consciousness careened back to the present. The cup! How could I forget tofill the cup?!! I picked it up and held it at eye level. The cup seemed largersomehow, and infinitely unfillable, like a gigantic movie prop from Honey, IShrunk the Kids. I set it back down and considered my options.

I could fill the cup with water and “trip” on my way out of the bathroom.I could invent an excuse involving dehydration or bladder shyness. I couldsqueeze through the narrow window above the bathtub and flee to the airport.

Realizing that none of these schemes would work, I ultimately had to admit tothe nurse that I’d forgotten what I’d gone to the bathroom for. “I candrink a bunch of water and try again in a few minutes,” I offered.

“That’s okay,” she said, grabbing the empty cup and dropping it intoher metal box. “I’ll come back tomorrow. I have nothing better to do.”

I’d like to report that this was an aberrant bout of absentmindedness,something that could be chalked up to cold medication or a fight with my mother.But the fact is, I tend to forget. A lot. And it’s getting worse.

In the last several months, I’ve left my purse in two Mexican restaurants,a coffee shop, the trunk of a friend’s car, and the dressing room at EddieBauer. Two weeks ago, I removed a nozzle from my garden hose and spent thelatter part of that afternoon trying, in vain, to discover where I’d placedit.

The scary part for me is that over the last few months I’ve also been goingto a Zen Buddhist Center in an effort to practice meditation and mindfulness.One of my goals has been to become less forgetful by being more fully present.Or, to paraphrase a popular Buddhist saying, “To pee here now.” But I’veeven forgotten things at the Zen Center, like the time I misplaced my pursebefore an important ceremony and had nothing to contribute to the fight againstworld hunger.

The increasing bouts of absentmindedness have been worrying me, and the jokesfrom friends about early Alzheimer’s were starting to be not so hilarious. Butlast week I got some valuable insight into absentmindedness when I completed anassessment called the Gregorc Style Delineator.

This assessment groups people into four types on the basis of how they valuecertain words. The word “lively,” for example, struck me as more appealingthan “rational.” I liked the word “spontaneous” better than “troubleshooter.”

When the results of my word valuations were tabulated, I was shown to be aclear “Abstract Random.” The negative characteristics of people in thiscategory include a proclivity toward “flightiness” and an inattention todetail that often earns them the title of -- and I’m quoting directly from theassessment -- “an off-the-wall flake.”

However, in reviewing the assessment, I learned that there are several goodreasons why Abstract Randoms -- “A-Rs” for short -- appear so flighty. Forstarters, and I’m bragging only a little here, A-Rs have vivid imaginationsand a tremendous capacity to absorb and relate seemingly unrelated facts, andthey often divert their attention only to that which has personal meaning. (Aurine cup? I don’t think so.) Furthermore, A-Rs rarely work in a sterileoffice with an orderly desk. Instead, and I plead guilty, the office of an A-Ris located in whatever coffee shop she happens to be working in. Her filingcabinet is in her head.

Needless to say, I found these results reassuring. As a journalist, I’mpaid to find connections between people and the events that surround them. Thus,I have to spend time musing about life and what it means, and sometimes the besttime for musing is when I’m doing some other mindless task. So what if Iforget a purse in the process?

All of this has gotten me to thinking about something I learned in anovel-writing class, and that is that a character’s greatest strength is alsoher biggest weakness. It’s certainly true in my case, but it’s also true ofmany other people: the brilliant physician who focuses so intently on healing apatient’s body that he neglects to comfort her soul; the quick-thinkingmarketing whiz who’s hugely intolerant of people who don’t “get it” asquickly as he does. Even Einstein, from what I hear, couldn’t remember his ownaddress or phone number.

The point I’m trying to make, and I’m not at all defensive about this, isthat no one is strong in all facets of human behavior. Some of us are good withpeople, others with data; some are logical, others reactive; some pay attention,others ... what were we talking about? Anyway, chances are, the better you areat one end of the spectrum, the worse you’ll be at the other. How many visualartists do you know who could run an accounting firm?

Instead of judging a person’s weaknesses, wouldn’t it be kinder torecognize her strengths and offer to drive her to the restaurant where she lefther car keys the night before? I think so.

Workforce, May 2002, pp. 20,24 -- Subscribe Now!

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