There is a vast difference between the narcissistic “That could have been me” and the empathetic “That could be us.” It is not a mere matter of tense.
In law school, rows of seats were tiered like an upside-down wedding cake. By the middle rows, one had lithely to step around quite a few students to get to most seats. During winter, when wan students were thickened by down coats and armored with backpacks bulging with dense hardcover textbooks, this required particular finesse.
One morning, the unforgettable E. (she who remarked upon my engagement ring by saying “It’s so . . . . small.”) was sitting a few seats away from me in such a row when another student wended his way along, stumbled, and pitched a cup of hot coffee on the woman sitting on my other side. Most of us jumped up to try to wipe away the scorching liquid and see if she had been burned.
While we all patted away at the coffee-drenched student and her belongings, E. announced, very loudly, and in a dissonant and peculiar tone of personal affront, “That could have been me!”
Five years later I cracked my knee, audibly, on a sidewalk in Philadelphia. My husband Jim and I did not yet have children and were visiting friends whose spirited two-year-old was making a scene (with a very impressive size-to-noise ratio) inside a restaurant where Jim was attempting to sample an authentic Philly cheese-steak.
Not a red meat fan myself, but a tremendous fan of young children, I swept the toddler outside with me so Jim and his friends could enjoy lunch.
I misjudged both the toddler’s strength and the pitch of the cement front step, and as he flailed away I fell on one knee, which made a disturbing cracking sound and flooded my pain receptors and eyes.
We did not know it then, but I was about a week along on the road to motherhood.
Jim and I were soon to board a train home to Boston. The train was crowded, and we immediately encountered signs of child distress. This time, an infant was screaming at the top of his lungs. I hesitated in the aisle but Jim sat down right behind the mother and child. He looked up at me and rested his left hand on the seat next to him, palm up, inviting me to sit.
“It’s going to be a long trip listening to that,” I said.
“That could be us.” He replied.
And it would be, in less than a year: we would be the ones with the infant whose very presence, even when cherubically slumbering in his carseat, would make others shrink away from us and switch tables if we entered a restaurant. (And this was well before toddlerhood and the days of 500% tips once the children got to the experimental physics stage with whatever their pudgy little fingers could clutch and hurl.)
And it would be us, three babies after that, when our scarlet-cheeked feverish infant howled in my arms and spat up on me as our plane circled the Manchester airport and I received the stink eye from fellow passengers.
This was the thing about my husband: he had an uncanny sense of both proportion and commonality. Why shy away from a screaming baby? Why not just sit down and offer to help a beleaguered parent?
I believe in good and evil, black and white (though I’m working on it). Jim saw something else in people.
That could be us.
He didn’t mean it in a self-centered way at all; it was his way of capturing the Golden Rule. In any situation in which most people’s first impulse is to steer clear, or judge, he instinctively would act in the way he would want someone he loved to be treated.
I think Jim always looked at fellow, flawed human beings as part of a common experience and as shaped by circumstances we may know nothing about.
I wonder if he looked at his own patients and ever consciously thought, “That could be someone I love.” He certainly treated them as though he did. A nurse who worked with him told me a story about him:
Here was this enthusiastic, ambitious doctor who would end up being a wonderful mentor to me for many years. I quickly learned that Jim was truly a gifted clinician with his brilliant mind and compassionate soul. More importantly, he was a warm, funny, centered person who always had wisdom beyond his years. His advice about medicine and parenting were so helpful to me on so many occasions. . . .
I remember him getting down on one knee to comfort an elderly woman who was lonely but otherwise had no medical concerns. He gave her uplifting advice and told her she could come see him anytime and that he would always help her. She left relieved and admitted to me she had always had a crush on that ‘beautiful man.’ He had mastered the art of medicine.
I have no doubt he treated every patient, no matter how cantankerous, or bewildered, or uncooperative, the way he would want his own family treated.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon