by Susie Merz

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”
— George Saunders

This statement by George Saunders, shared in our writing group this afternoon, resonated with me. There was a moment in fact, just over a week ago, when I felt I had missed an opportunity for kindness. 

Photo by averie woodard on Unsplash. Click to enlarge.

I had to have blood work done in preparation for an upcoming oncologist appointment. Before having cancer, it was merely unpleasant to have blood taken. Now, when it comes time for blood work, fear comes to the surface. What if the cancer has come back? So, it is safe to say that I loathe this task. Going into the ugly medical building that houses the blood lab, sitting in the dismal waiting area, being directed to sit in chair number one or number three or whichever, and then have someone stick a needle in my arm to draw several vials of blood. And then, wait for the results.

The lab technician that helped me last week did her work without looking me in the face. At all. She took my requisition, confirmed my date of birth, address and so on, and told me which chair to go to. When she arrived to draw blood, she asked me which arm, told me to close my fist, and carried on through the rest of the process. All of this without seeing me really. I felt dehumanized, like I was an object on an assembly line, being pushed forward through a machine.

I wanted to be treated with kindness. I wanted her to look me in the eyes with even a little warmth and care. Somehow, I wanted her to know that even though the blood work is part of my routine, the reason for it brings up a lot of fear, and she didn’t seem to be able to be present and care for me in that. 

In the couple of minutes between her removing the needle and returning to put a Band-Aid on, I had determined that I was not going to say thank you for that Band-Aid. I ranted in my head about how I am always too polite anyway, and that she hadn’t done anything to deserve a thank you, and on and on. There I was, fingers pressing hard on the cotton ball in the crook of my arm, waiting for the moment to withdraw a courtesy, never mind offer a kindness. 

Of course, she could have been more kind or attentive toward me, but she is a person with a life and was (obviously) having some kind of day, aside from the fact that day after day she sticks needles in people’s arms and deals with all manner of bodily fluids.

She came back, got the little round band-aid out of its package, removed the backing and put it on my arm. “Thank you,” I said. It was involuntary. I could not keep myself from saying "thank you" for that small kindness. She looked at me with a glimmer of a smile and mumbled, “You’re welcome.”

Ah. I had expended a lot of energy being upset during that process. What if I had been kind to her at the beginning of our interaction? How might it have gone differently? I need to return to do blood work again in six months, so I will have a chance to try again. No matter how someone else is being, I could choose to be kind. In fact, all the more reason to be so.

Susie Merz first came to Callanish as a retreat participant in 2015 and has since joined the staff team as a clinical counsellor. She has worked as a therapist for over 14 years, both in nonprofit agencies and in her own counselling practice.