The Compartment Conundrum

I’ve been thinking lately about community and human connectivity. It’s becoming more and more dear to my heart as I see the divisive nature of our public discourse and the dismissive attitude so many have toward those whose lives differ from their own. Indeed, I realize I’m as guilty in these tendencies as any of the folks I’d target for my ire. At the same time, I remind myself that in my work here at UAB, with Support Teams, with The Wholeness Project, and with the emerging Loneliness Project, the unifying force in all of them is the need for meaningful human connectivity. What if our population became skillful at nurturing meaningful connections between people?

First, The Compartment Conundrum —

The pedestrian bridge spanning the space over 18th Street S. between the North Pavilion of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital and the Women and Infants Center.

The pedestrian bridge spanning the space over 18th Street S. between the North Pavilion of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital and the Women and Infants Center.

There was a small traffic jam on the crosswalk from the North Pavilion to the Women and Infants Center (WIC) yesterday. A pedestrian traffic jam. Normally, twelve people walking shoulder to shoulder could stride comfortably along that crosswalk, which spans the space over a very busy street. Yesterday, though, a group of visiting physicians had stopped on one side of the corridor for their tour guide to explain the various campus buildings which are visible from that vista. Simultaneously, a woman in a wheel chair had stopped on the other side of the corridor directly across from the visiting physicians. Her daughter had been pushing her IV pole while her husband pushed the wheel chair. Other folks going in both directions funneled into the space between the wheel chair entourage and the huddled physicians. The daughter had grabbed the IV pole and tubes so as to shield them from accidental collision. I had to stop right behind the wheel chair family.

The daughter saw that I’d stopped and realized I was waiting. Three nurses stopped and stood beside me. She and her dad looked at us sheepishly. The daughter looked anguished. “Oh! We’re so sorry! We’re just blocking up everything.” She indicated to her father that they should squeeze over to the side.

I said, “Oh! Take your time! No problem!”

The nurses with me expressed the same sentiment. “We can wait! Take your time!”

After all, each of us – I, the chaplain, the three nurses on their way to the WIC – could see the scarf around the woman’s head, the billiard ball smoothness of her skull beneath the scarf’s hem, the absence of eyebrows and lashes. It was obvious to me, as I’m sure it was to the RNs, that here was a family taking their beloved mom/wife for a little excursion away from the confines of her room. For a few steps, we walked along slowly behind them. I said, “Out for some fresh air?”

The woman in the wheel chair turned her face toward the light streaming in through the crosswalk windows. “Yes! It feels so good to get out of that room and feel the sun on my face.”

“Where’re you from,” inquired one of the nurses.

The 18th Street Crosswalk at a much less busy time.

The 18th Street Crosswalk at a much less busy time.

“Oxford, Mississippi,” said the daughter.

“I’m from Oxford,” cried one of the other nurses.

“Y’all pull for Ol’ Miss?” The question came from a physician who’d slowed to walk behind us.

“Oh yeah,” answered the father, speaking for the first time. He pumped his fist.

Then the group of visiting physicians across the hall moved on. The corridor opened up. People spaced themselves evenly again. The nurses, the physician behind us, and I walked around the trio and each of us wished them well as we passed. We were rewarded with a bright smile from the woman in the chair who said, “Thank you. Bless you!”

We walked a few more steps before one of the nurses said, “Isn’t it interesting how patient we can be when we’re walking? If you’d come across someone going that slow on the interstate, there’d have been a long line of tailgaters. People would’ve been blasting around them, probably flipping them off,” and she made motions with her arms.

That made me smile. I said, “It’s difficult to be rude when there isn’t anything separating you from the other person and you can see what they’re up against.”

I thought of that again as I made my way home yesterday afternoon. Our cars are compartments that shield us from wind as they whisk us along to our destination, but they also make it impossible to know the human beings riding along beside us. In our moving compartments, zipping from the cubicles where many of us work, to the houses where many of us collapse after a hard day’s labor, we’re largely separated from the stories that animate the lives of those around us. We don’t know them. And when a vehicle slows in front of us, many of us feel irritation at the object that has interrupted our pace. It’s certainly not easy for ME to remember that a human being sits in that car, a human being with a story which could be as compelling as the trio on the crosswalk. (Sure, they also might be distracted by their cell phone, but that isn’t true of everyone.)

Our compartments lull us into a sort of dazed forgetfulness. Of course, this isn’t just true for car commuters. I’ve commuted in cities with public transport, sitting on the Metro in Washington, D.C., for example, with hundreds of other people. Many tuck themselves behind books, or their Kindles, or studiously avoid eye contact listening to their ear buds which emit a sound like a small belt sander is in their head. Though automobiles serve as very concrete compartments, we can also construct compartments in our hearts. It takes a certain discipline to remember that we’re surrounded by hundreds of stories.

I know some people who possess this virtue which I have not yet nurtured to maturity in my own character. They don’t feel irritation when they have to slow in traffic, or wait for a car to merge, or get all twisted out of shape because someone up ahead didn’t respond quickly enough to the light changing from red to green. I’ve ridden with people who seem to see past the barrier of their mobile compartment, who remember that a human with a history rides in that other compartment, and they may be dealing heroically with challenges that would crush me.

That’s why I was so glad for the pedestrian traffic jam. It reminded me that I need to get past my compartments, whether the literal compartment of my automobile, or the more psychological/spiritual compartment of my preoccupation with my own issues. When I do that, and lean into the relationships across which I stumble everyday, I’ll see the particularity of people and experience the warming of the heart I experienced with the trio from Oxford.

This is one of the major advantages that occur when we organize support teams for folks we know and care about. Putting together and participating in a support team obliterates our compartments and gives us the privilege of playing a small but crucial role in a friend’s heroic story.

That’s what happens when we “lean into relationships.”

In the next post, more on “leaning into relationships.”

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