Wednesday, September 28, 2011
"Compassionate listening is crucial. We listen with the willingness to relieve the suffering of the other person, not to judge or argue with her. We listen with all our attention. Even if we hear something that is not true, we continue to listen deeply so the other person can express her pain and relieve tensions within herself. If we reply to her or correct her, the practice will not bear fruit. "--Thich Nhat Hanh, from Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh
I got off the train and steeled myself. I should not enter the building cranky or resentful. I should not bring negativity to someone who has already had a lifetime of suffering. On the one hand I felt guilty and ashamed for being so petty. But I was also thinking, "What will she ask me for next?"
I was visiting my older friend Linda for our weekly talk. I've been volunteering with her for almost three years now and I have pretty good attendance. I know that she counts on my visits as a break in her routine, so I try not to skip a week unless I'm sick or on vacation. The thought of her alone in her apartment day after day is more than a little heartbreaking.
But lately my compassion for her has been tested. Really, I should have seen this coming.
Linda and I talk a lot about boundaries. She has encountered certain people in her life who have boundary issues. Because she lives in Section 8 housing, she has been placed in residences with a mixed population of mentally ill, disabled, and the elderly. Linda has had at least two friends who have been mentally challenged in some form or another.
I was starting to notice that she herself refused to set boundaries with others. She often complains about a neighbor who is kind of a pseudo "friend." Really the woman is a bully, but Linda prefers to keep her enemies close.
According to Linda's side of the story, which may or may not be slightly exaggerated, this woman calls and visits Linda at all hours of the night, barges into her apartment without knocking, and asks her for favors and money. Linda is on a fixed income and is not very good at handling her money. I get angry when I hear that her "friend" has asked her for everything from a glass of juice, to the repeated use of her vacuum cleaner, to a gift of a pricey talking scale (!!), even cash. She wakes Linda up early in the morning and demands a cup of coffee. Linda has trouble with her mobility and whenever the neighbor knocks on the door, Linda has to launch herself up and walk across the room, even if she's not in her braces.
This is not the first time I have heard stories of Linda's being taken advantage of. She says the people who do it don't know any better. That may be true--there seems to be a lack of social intelligence going around. I tell her repeatedly, "Stand up for yourself! Don't let yourself get pushed around." That's when I begin sounding like an article on assertiveness in a woman's glossy. "It's OK to say no to people!"
Although I still fill out a time sheet for the volunteer organization that first set me up with Linda, I consider her a friend and assume she feels the same. But there are times when she seems to turn the tables on me and starts testing MY boundaries.
Every week I bring a snack for us to share, usually hummus and celery or guacamole and chips. She used to put out a bowl of pretzels when I came over but later told me that she couldn't afford to keep doing it, so I willingly took on snack duty. She provides seltzer water. Everytime we start eating, I can sense that she's waiting for me to finish. I'll have a bite in my mouth and she'll immediately exclaim, "Dig in!" or "Have some more." But when I shake my head because I don't want to answer with my mouth full, she always looks pleased with my response and consequently moves the snack closer to her.
Before our visits she often calls me at home and on my cell--repeatedly if I don't answer right away--requesting small items. I don't mind picking things up for her. After all, she doesn't get out much and the person who used to help her isn't in the picture anymore. Usually because the items are small--aspirin, lotion, dental floss--I refuse to let her pay me back for them. I figure as long as it's a once-in-a-while type of thing it's OK.
But when she comes to expect these things and more from me week after week, I start to get resentful. Two months before her birthday she started naming things she wanted me to buy her: Pajama jeans (I talked her out of those), an Episcopal silver cross necklace that you can only find in select religious stores in the outer suburbs, a tacky pleather case for her Bible that she found in one of those Fingerhut-type catalogs, the ones that you see and wonder, "Who buys this shit?" Now you know. We settle on slacks from Land's End. Now I am forever on their plus-size catalog mailing list.
Recently Linda asked me, "Can you cash a check for me?" I asked her what she meant since she has her own bank account. She replied, "I'll give you a check for $32 and you give me cash, and then hold the check until I get my social security next month." A loan. She had just finished telling me how angry she was at a relative who refused to lend her $65 for a pair of sneakers. "He's got a fancy house with an indoor pool and he can't spare $65!" Now who was the cheapskate-miser? Me.
I still said no. Boundary erected.
I did agree to be on Linda's Lifeline list, to be her local ICE (in case of emergency) contact listed on a form magnetized to her refrigerator, and her emergency cat sitter. I am proud to be able to do be these things for her. The difference is these responsibilities come with being a good friend. They don't cost anything except time.
I try to play my role of listener, of confidant. I try to be present for her even during the times she frustrates me. I don't know if her stories of unfriendly encounters with the cable guy or the crazy woman on the sixth floor are exaggerated--she does have a tendency toward paranoia. I don't know if she is really having bad cell phone service or she just wanted to have an excuse to switch carriers again because she's a maximizer. I try not to tell her what to do, but like a mother to a wayward teenager, I find it impossible not to give her advice, even while I know she probably won't take it.
The last time I visited she gave me a piece of banana bread her neighbor made and a frozen Challah loaf (she's recently reverted back to Judaism, which she converted to years ago) saying "I'm afraid of the oven. I didn't know you had to bake it." I take these gifts with the thought that maybe my friendship means more to her than the opportunity to shave a few dollars off her grocery list.
I'm happy just being a lifeline.