Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"I not grumpy t'day": thoughts on paying attention

My work-at-home life has shifted out of the house for the past two weeks as I've been filling in for L'Arche Edmonton's receptionist, who is away on vacation. I've really enjoyed my mornings in the office in spite of a few frustrations with technology breakdowns, mainly because I get to see my friends at work. There's no human interaction when I'm writing L'Arche history at my kitchen desk.

I also get to see my friend, Thomas, every day, and I've learned something from him again -- my L'Arche friends with intellectual disabilities often cause me to reflect on what's really important.

Last week I discovered that it's essential to notice when Thomas comes into the room, and to say hello, no matter what my computer screen is demanding of me. On Tuesday, I was fighting with an email program that refused to either send or receive what had to be critically important emails (not likely) and was completely focused on it when Thomas arrived. He walked into the room, sat down at the table not far from my desk, and waited for me to notice him, which, unfortunately, I didn't for quite some time. When I finally did look up and say hello, he said, "I not talking t'you," in his angry voice.

Nothing I could say or do made up for the fact that I hadn't greeted him sooner. He sat, arms crossed, glaring at me, and eventually, got up and walked out. When I mentioned this to someone else, she said, "Oh, just be sure to greet Thomas right away, or he gets grumpy."

On Wednesday, when Thomas arrived, I said hello to him and asked how he was as soon as he walked into my room. His immediate, happy response was, "I not grumpy t'day," and I said, "I'm so glad. I like to be with you when you're happy." He spent a good part of the morning at the table near my desk, offering commentary on the falling snow or the situation in the parking lot ("lots of cars"), or in companionable silence. He didn't require a lot of attention, but it seemed important to him that I acknowledge his presence occasionally.

My experience with Thomas has me thinking a lot about these gadgets and gizmos that are always demanding our notice -- computers, TVs, tablets, smart phones and possibly a half-dozen other things that I don't even know about. They compete with our attention for each other, and if we let them win the competition, basic human interaction and courtesy lose out. How could a broken email program ever be more important than Thomas?

And yet everywhere we look there are people sitting together in different places, lost in their separate devices. Not that the devices are always an issue -- it's the lost-ness that is. As a technological society, we've developed the tendency to think that the business on those devices is terribly important. But it's essential -- and only human -- to be aware of those around us and their needs for our attention and care. When our devices start to suck us into unawareness of each other, it must be time to remind ourselves of our true priorities and turn them off.

It might just mean the difference between a "grumpy" or a "good day" for someone we love.

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