Meeting the Stories of Strangers with Loving Acceptance

Have you ever been standing somewhere waiting, perhaps in line at the grocery store, and someone begins telling you what seems to be their entire life story? They were recently diagnosed with some illness, they were recently laid off, their mother-in-law is coming into town and they’re a mess… the details always vary, of course, but the vulnerability remains the same. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine this act of being an appointed listener is something we have all experienced at some point, on some level.

But what about when these intimate forms of disclosure happen in more structured places, by people who are, to varying degrees, meant to be guided by ethical guidelines which prohibit or limit such forms of self-disclosure (this isn’t actually leading to a discussion of therapy, for once)? This has often been my experience and usually I don’t give it much thought (big surprise there, since I give everything too much thought). But, lately, I’ve really been indulging in this line of questioning because it is such a repeated theme in my life.

When I went to a new primary care doctor recently she divulged the relationship she had with another doctor I encountered in a prior visit to the ER. In her defense, when I mentioned his name I noticed a brief but significant change in her facial expression, so I asked about it because I’m an inquisitive person. And, I want to know if I’ve been treated by someone about whom I should have concerns. This asking prompted a great telling. Similarly, when I last saw a psychiatrist (whom I decided was definitely not for me, in part because of his self-disclosure), he seemed to be having a particularly exhausting day. He yawned and yawned and yawned. I understand some people would have just let this fly under the radar but I haven’t got much use for that. Again, inquisitive. What is the point of life, if not to satisfy our own curiosity? As it turns out, my curiosity is primarily focused on understanding people. With this guy, I found out more than I really wanted to know. Upon my asking why he appeared to be so exhausted that day, he propelled himself into a lengthy story of some of his more “frustrating” clients. The one in particular that I remember was a woman that had come to him seeking a prescription for medical marijuana. She had been charged for the possession of drugs and was thus reasoning, if she just had a prescription the charges should go away. And, she would be validated in her use of drugs for medicinal purposes. This story sticks with me because it told me more about his character than it did about hers. I suppose that’s really the thing about self-disclosure to strangers and “inappropriate” people that really interests me… not why people are choosing to disclose to me or to you but what this says about them as people.

Sometimes people make their motivations clear, my students for example. If I haven’t told you already I respect and admire them for their vulnerability and honesty. More often than not, this transparency comes in the form of journal writing, given that I am an English teacher. But, sometimes, I get the pleasure of having truly meaningful one-on-one conversations with them. And every time, almost without fail, they tell me upfront what they’re hoping to get from the impending divulging of secrets: “Miss, I don’t know why, but you’re really easy to talk to, so I’m going to tell you what’s stressing me out right now. I just need you to listen.” Or, sometimes it is more tentative, “do you remember when I told you about [xyz], do you think we can talk about that? I need advice.” No matter what form their preface takes, I’m still awed by their courage. Even on days when I feel most beat down by my job, I feel humbled (and dare I say, blessed), to be gifted the opportunity to witness their stories. They share, not because they have to or because I’ve asked them a leading question. This sharing seems to come from some place pure. A genuine desire to be heard and understood. This, to me, is a clear display of their tremendous character (something I wish that I could take into my therapy sessions, where I remain entrenched in my own irrational fears).

What my kids bring to self-disclosure stands in stark contrast to the Doctor and Psychiatrist who unloaded their woes on me, the client/patient. I admit that I am partially at fault there, I did ask questions and effectively opened the door. But, I know enough about the ethical guidelines which mediate health professions (particularly mental health professions) to know that self-disclosure is to be used conscientiously. Meaning for the benefit of the client/patient. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve sidelined their human needs, and failed to see their desires to be heard/understood. With the primary care doctor, I don’t find so much fault. I didn’t benefit from her telling me this other doctor was an arrogant, sexist ass. But, I wasn’t bothered by it either, since it was something I had already picked up on for myself. I could have seen past her descent into gossip and continued being her patient, had she not disappeared from the practice the following day. The psychiatrist, however, gave me extreme pause. If he were willing to tell me all of these things about other clients, what is to stop him from telling other people about me? Not that I ever told him anything even remotely interesting or worth sharing, and not that I ever presented in such a way that I would elicit feelings intense enough one way or another to warrant discussion… but still, what if? That, to me, does not speak of good character. Maybe that’s what distinguishes one kind of sharing from another. With him there was an implied power differential that made his disclosure potentially threatening. Having been afforded this position, he should have recognized the implications. But, he is still human. And, as much as I try to convince myself otherwise (because it feels somewhat pretentious or arrogant to hold this belief), perhaps he saw me more as an equal, for whatever reason.

This idea of sharing with equals brings me back to  the random stranger in line at the grocery store. What of his/her motivation or character? Would he/she have told these secrets to anyone that day? Was it just that the secrets weighed so heavily that they refused to stay contained and thus says less about the individual, more about humanity? I genuinely don’t have any answers. I’m scared to even speculate because, to me, that person has something I could never even imagine myself possessing. Something, for the record, I admire. Even though society often looks down on people for sharing too much. There is something beautiful though, about being able to just open yourself up to another person, to risk judgement. I know that I must not come across as particularly open or kind, yet still, people often choose me to share their secrets with. I cannot even fathom why, but I am honored. And, perhaps, on some level I understand that the universe may be showing me that it is all right. That it is okay to risk judgement. Because, sometimes, as is the case when strangers (and my students) share with me, that vulnerability is met with loving acceptance and admiration.

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