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  • Reverend James Squire

I am Not Going to Compete with Your Toothpaste

Photo by Erik McLean

I know someone who has been going through the toughest of times. She is not someone who readily asks for help as she is an independent person. When she reaches out to someone you know that she is in need of support. Recently she called a friend. She could tell that the person on the other end of the line was multi-tasking. When she inquired about what she was doing, her friend responded, “I am picking up my dog’s prescription toothpaste.” The individual who really needed to connect with someone and talk responded, “I am not going to compete with your toothpaste.”

Her friend was multi-tasking which is an admirable trait. Gender studies indicate that women do this much better than men so to give the benefit of doubt to the person picking up her dog’s toothpaste, she probably slipped into the mode of multi-tasking as a path of least resistance instead of really responding to the call with her full attention. I am a multi-tasker. I frequently watch television with a computer on my lap, a cell phone parked on the arm of a couch, and one or two books at my side. The yellow pad for notes would be there as well. Vicki will sometimes ask, “Are you watching this show or not?” I rarely read one book at a time, but I learned something very important from working with young people for so many years about important conversations.

First, if you want to see a relationship in its clearest form pay attention to what is important to a high school student. Adolescents live out loud so it is easy to see what works for people in general by seeing what works for them.

When someone wants to talk with you about a matter, assume that it is not the easiest thing for them to do. Few young people reached out to me who were in a tough spot who really didn’t need to talk. The other thing that we humans do when we reach out to others is to assume incorrectly that what we need to talk about is not as bad as we thought it was. I would often hear a person who called or came to my office utter that famous opening line, “Look, this is no big deal, but…” Then they would proceed to tell me something that would bring me or others to our knees. There is a tendency to understate our personal pain. It’s a coping mechanism. Kids do it all the time.

If you don’t want to hear, “I don’t want to compete with your toothpaste,” then make sure that you are totally available to the other person. We live in a culture of looking past people who need to talk. Think of the last time that you were in an important conversation with someone and you were thinking more about how you were going to respond rather than really listening to their plight. We all do it, but the opposite is very much needed. Listen first, then talk. An approach that I have found to be helpful is that after an important exchange whether it is with someone on the phone or in my office, I will take a moment, reflect on the conversation, and ask myself how I could have been more helpful. I learn a lot from those moments. That was the nature of how I was trained.

We had something called verbatims at Duke which is writing down an exchange with someone that you are counseling and have the supervisor go over it from an objective standpoint. It also forced me to remember everything that I could about an encounter. It would force me to listen carefully until it became a positive habit. My supervisor would then tell me how I could have done it better. Not easy on the ego, but easy on getting better in being of help. The key issue is focus. The person you are helping needs to be the only person in the world at that moment. Recall the famous line of Ghandi that, “you may be only one person in the world but you may be the whole world to one person.” That is always the goal.

People who need help reach out to people who they feel will understand the “emotional world in which they are living.” When parents discovered that their son or daughter came to me first to talk about a problem and not them, their feelings would be hurt even though one of my goals in any exchange was to get the young person in communication with their parents. Young people go to friends or an adult who they think will understand because they are living in that world 24/7. Students knew that I understood that they were hard working, under constant evaluation, and pressure. Most parents have a reference point of their time in school. That can be the same as their children, but often it is not.

Human beings love others to inconvenience themselves for them. They may resist this truth. The friend who had focused on her dog’s toothpaste could have said, “Whoa! I am here to pick up some toothpaste, but let me get back in the car and focus on you for you never call unless it is important.” How different that experience would have been for the person seeking a listening ear.

Students knew that I had a crazy schedule, but their games, theater and musical productions were important to them so I showed up. I showed up as well because I genuinely loved watching the result of a lot of their hours of preparation. They saw this as me inconveniencing myself for them. They would always thank me the next day if we ran into one another. It’s not hard to find the clerical collar in a crowd. I don’t know about you, the reader, but if someone inconveniences themselves for me, “they have a friend for life.”

Life isn’t perfect! Sometimes I get a call when I am driving and have to take it then. I could be in a store or public place as well. The next time that someone calls me from their car, however, when it is convenient for them and they are multi-tasking to scratch me from their mental list, I may just say, “I am not going to compete with your toothpaste.” It will give them something to think about , scratch their head in confusion, and perhaps inconvenience themselves for someone else. One can only hope!

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