In this post, we feature an excerpt from The Shift: How Seeing People Changes Everything. This book is a vivid and real-world example of the personal and institutional impact of Arbinger’s transformative ideas within a healthcare organization—the HG nursing homes.
I had become used to the atmosphere of nursing homes by this time, but there was one patient I tried to avoid: Alice.
Her face was youngish and pleasant enough, but one side of the top of her head was missing. Just missing. It looked like her skull had just caved in over her left eye, well past where there should have been a brain holding it up.
She wore a baseball cap, but she would have had to pull it down to her eyebrows to fully hide the disfigurement. The skin in this spot was ridged with scars and bald, so you could not miss the grotesque, bald cave-in if you looked toward her at all. I had taken one glance and then tried not to take any more; if I looked I was afraid I might just stare in horror.
One lunchtime I happened to see Alice in the dining room; she was facing out toward the lobby area where I was. I noticed her because I heard her call out something to an aide who was walking by, but he went right past her. She muttered the F-word quite clearly in response.
A few moments later he left the dining room, grabbed something, and went back in, and she called out again what I recognized as “Pitcher” but again he walked right past her (and she responded with an F-bomb again).
Another staff member went in to the dining room, and Alice called out, “Pitcher!” this time waving her water pitcher, but again she was passed by without being helped.
Now, I had suffered a head injury in my early 30s, and after my initial recovery I began having trouble producing the names of common household objects. There was nothing wrong with my mouth, or my thinking, but my brain just couldn’t access certain words. The condition is called aphasia: you don’t want it.
I would be talking along and then suddenly couldn’t say “purse” or “cupboard” or some other ordinary words and would either freeze up entirely and be unable to speak, or find that I had said a related (but incorrect) word—like I’d said “shoes” when I meant “sock.” I found it frustrating and embarrassing; it made me look forgetful and stupid when I was neither, and I was quite sensitive about it.
Watching Alice’s sharp eyes as she tried to ask for whatever it was she wanted, not saying anything but nouns and curses, growing increasingly frustrated, a sense of familiarity stole over me—I recognized that experience she was having. I saw her face and it was like looking into my own frustration. I knew how she felt: she knew what she wanted to say but she couldn’t make her brain say it.
I don’t remember deciding to help her, but there I was at her table.
“Pitcher, water, lemon!” she spat out when she saw me. “You want a pitcher of water with lemon?” I guessed, which seemed easy enough. She nodded. Then said, expressively, “1, 2, 3, f--k!”. Looking back, I can’t imagine how I knew what this meant, but I did, instantly, like it was the clearest message in the world— “You told three people, and none of them helped you.” She nodded again.
My heart hurt for her, this poor frustrated woman, unable to say the things that would force them to stop and listen. There was something else she wanted to say, but in the end no sound came out of her open mouth but a kind of grunt. In frustration, she shook her head and cried “F--k!” again.
“I know,” I told her, “I hate when I can’t say the right word. I’ll wait.” She smiled at me then, nodded, and pointed to the collapsed part of her head in explanation. A moment later she was able to say the word.
But I am trying, in a different way, to find the words that can express the feeling that came over me when this dear woman smiled at me and pointed to her injury. Because I found I’d forgotten it.
I’d been watching her and talking to her and not thought for a second about her misshapen head. The very thing I had found so grotesque and spent two days avoiding having to look at, I had been within inches of and didn’t even register. When she pointed to it I didn’t even see a disfigurement, I just saw skin.
In that moment, I could have kissed that sunken scar, that tragic memento of what we, as two unrelated human beings who had never met before, somehow improbably shared.
Here’s Alice’s story: She had been alone at home when she suffered a brain aneurysm. She knew something was desperately wrong, and got in her car and drove herself straight to the hospital. She made it to the parking lot with the very last gasp of her energy—the very last indeed, for once the car was stopped she found herself too weak to get herself out of it. She sat there, helpless, within sight of the hospital she couldn’t reach, for two days before someone noticed her.
When I had finished helping Alice, I found I wanted to run, jump, and dance around; I felt so excited inside I wanted to express it outside. I had done something good; this day that I was living mattered to someone else.
I couldn’t remember the last time somebody else’s life was better because of me. I felt like I suddenly understood, in my soul, what the people who work in skilled nursing facilities had been telling me all along: being able to help people is the best feeling in the world.
It’s way better than whatever we feel when we’re thinking about ourselves. It’s better than being right, it’s better than having a great story to tell about our own greatness. It’s the feeling that makes humanity such a marvelous and incomprehensible thing.
It's what’s on the other side of the shift.
You can order Kimberly’s forthcoming book here.