The first question someone usually asks after summer vacation is, “How was your break?” And the follow up, “Was it great?” The expected response is quick and to the point. “Yeah, it was wonderful.” “Yes, it was fine.” The conversation is over.
I have asked the initial prompt several times this week. However, this year, I let the question linger a few seconds, so the person’s face has time to register the question. And actual analysis of facial expressions is quite astounding. Furrowed eyebrows. Eyes turned downward. A smile that doesn’t quite match the wearied face. Not everyone had a great summer break. In fact, for many, it was extremely hard. Whether it was experiencing a death in the family, familial break-ups or tension, issues with children, financial instability, diagnoses of illnesses, or bouts of depression and loneliness, summer break doesn’t erase the real problems human beings face every day.
Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman shares a story about a chaplain intern’s assumptions about a patient’s needs. Summarizing the story, the intern was spending time with a woman with severe dementia. The woman repeated, “You can’t give me what I need.” The intern eagerly asked, “Do you need water? Do you need a blanket?” The woman again repeated, “You can’t give me what I need.” Finally, the woman revealed, “You can’t give me what I need because what I need is love.” Her husband, a frequent visitor, was unable to visit that day. What she needed most was something the chaplain could never begin to guess. Instead of presuming the woman needed x, y, or z, Rabbi Friedman suggests to all of us that first, we stop working off our assumptions.
An assumption would be that everyone loves summer break. An assumption would be the start of school triggers excitement and joy in all families and students. An assumption would be that just because June is the official start of summer break, personal and professional problems take a vacation too.
We can’t stop asking the question. “How was your summer break” is an opening and invitation. But… stay awhile and let’s not assume we know the answer.
Rather, ask, linger, read the person’s face, and with courage and patience, be the one, willing to hear exactly what they need.