So, at my request, the nurse comes into the room, administers PRN pain medication then tries—unsuccessfully—to engage me in small talk, and leaves. But as she approaches the door, she sarcastically says, “You’re welcome.” She is making it clear that she expected me to say “thank you”; that is, to make her feel good about doing her job.
Here’s what I think: I make sure to keep my insurance current so that she gets a paycheck. She has no right to expect anything else from me. If I were living with a daughter or granddaughter who loved me and was taking care of me because of that love then you can bet that I’d pepper her with so many thank-you’s that it would be an embarrassment of riches.
The nurse is not acting out of love. In fact, she’s never before laid eyes on me. She’s a complete stranger here to do a job and get paid for it; she’s here for the money. It’s a business relationship. “Thank-you’s” are a tip for going over and above doing your job, e.g., thinking to bring me chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla. If you’re getting paid then that’s all the thank-you you have the right to expect from me.
Some of you are out there thinking “Geez, Woodlen, why can’t you just be nice?” I’ll tell you why. I’ve been on full Social Security Disability since 1991. Christly Jesus, twenty-two years and two months. What that means is that I have not been able to drive you to the airport, help you pack and move, wash your dishes after a shared dinner, or take you to the movies.
I have not been able to do any of the things for which you would normally thank me. I am not on the “You’re welcome” end of the human relationship, and that makes me feel really worthless and miserable. Being able to say “You’re welcome” once in a while is incredibly good for one’s sense of value. All I have to offer is my wisdom, accrued from sixty-six years of perception and reflection. I have lived long and deeply and I could share with you what I have learned. It might ease your struggle through life. But you know what?
You’ve forced me to live in high-rise HUD-subsidized apartment buildings occupied by a couple hundred other people who are at least as old as I am. They, too, have lived long and deeply and don’t need my wisdom because they’ve got their own. I am not allowed to live in your neighborhood where we could get to know each other and I could share my knowledge and experience with you and thereby save you some heartache and loneliness.
So I have nothing to offer and you expect me to say thank you for everything you are paid to do for me. The real equation here is not about good manners or kindness or friendliness: it’s about power and subjugation. Staff members want to make it clear that they have power and I don’t and I, therefore, must be submissive.
Breakfast at the Iroquois is at 8:00 a.m. Yesterday the aide said she would come get me before 8:00 and take me to breakfast. She didn’t do it. By the time she did show up, I was irritated. She came in, smiled, didn’t get a return smile, and asked what was wrong, so I told her. I wouldn’t have said anything except for this: she’d been late the previous day, too, and no other aide in the month I’ve been here has been late.
The aide is twenty years old; she’s just a kid. My plan was to quietly tell her once and then drop the subject. The problem was that she wouldn’t drop it. She needed to be right, so she kept questioning me and arguing with me, defending and justifying her wrongful action. She did this relentlessly while she helped me get ready to be late for breakfast. When I wouldn’t back down, she flounced off and abandoned me in the lounge, saying she wouldn’t put up with me yelling at her.
I wasn’t yelling at her—didn’t raise my voice once, or say a single swear word. What I did was hold her accountable for not doing her job right, and the way she verbalized this was that I was “yelling” at her. Abandoning me in the lounge was her way of demonstrating just how powerless I am: I need her; I must submit to her; I must make her feel good about herself or look what she can do to me. The lounge is large, was totally empty, and contains no call bells or any other ways to communicate the need for help. One of the cardinal rules of nursing homes is that all patients must have access to a call bell at all times.
Eventually the nurse came along with her cart, did my finger-stick, gave me my medication and took me to the dining room. Then I told the nurse manager what the aide had done. The boss yells at the man, the man yells at his wife, the wife smacks the kid and the kid kicks the dog. I’m the dog—the less-than-human-being at the end of the line upon whom everybody else dumps their frustration about not having as much power as they want. The nurse and the aide are using different techniques to make it clear that I must be submissive and acknowledge their power.
Folks, it’s not about power; it’s about service. God gave power to the kings of Israel so that they could serve the people. Some of the Bhutanese aides actually thank me after they have provided some service, which is totally amazing, humbling and confusing. Years ago, after I got off life support, my pastor and I had a lot of conversations about Life, Death, God and Faith, then one day he thanked me for letting him do his job. Everybody else wanted to talk to him about the committee schedule, the budget and their bad marriage.
Can you imagine a society in which we each thanked others for letting us do our jobs?