Shawn Henfling tells the story of a man whose spontaneous confession changed his life.
“I’m at a critical juncture in my life and I’m not sure if I want to live or die.”
Though the words cut directly to my core, I couldn’t have been more surprised by them if the man had instead spoken, “I’m carrying your baby.” You see, I wasn’t a priest sitting in a confessional, a crisis counselor manning a hotline, or even a friend allowing another to vent. I was a salesman at Circuit City, doing my job and checking in on every customer in my area of responsibility. I will never forget the words, the nervous way the man laughed it off when he saw the shock on my face, or the lessons I learned that day.
Don’t ask a question if you aren’t prepared to deal with the answer. At 21, I’d already spent five years working retail. At the time, they were dead end jobs, things to get me by until real life, when I’d get a career and make real money. I was accustomed to asking customers how they were doing and what I could help them with. Thousands of times I’d asked, and every time I received a variation of the same answer: “Fine, thanks.” Until then. Until I didn’t know how to react and may have shamed a man who desperately needed help. I don’t know, but I wish he’d chosen someone who would have realized what he was saying. I also wish I’d known just how profound the moment was. I reacted poorly, and the moment passed. It pains me to know, with the benefit of hindsight, that my reaction may have nudged a man closer to suicide. If you ask the question, be prepared to deal with the answers, no matter what they may be.
If you are prepared to deal with the consequences of your question, make sure you mean it. I sure didn’t. I was simply going about my day, asking the question repeatedly like a mindless robot, barely paying attention to the answers. Every customer through the door was a dollar bill; it was my job to pluck it. They weren’t people, they were my commission, and I didn’t care one bit how they answered as long as I could find a way to take that money. I didn’t really want to know how they were doing, it wasn’t my job. I was too self important and fixated on the next sale see what I was missing.
Ideally, I’d tell you from that moment on I was a better person. I’d expound on the epiphany I had, standing there next to the Vaio laptops, realizing the err of my ways. I’d go on and tell you that I began volunteering, or feeding the homeless, or even caring a little more. Ideally, I’d tell you I did at least one of those things. Instead, I filed the experience away, tucked neatly into the recesses of my mind. Other than that initial shock, it had no bearing on me whatsoever.
A few years later, however, during a sales training for another job, the epiphany hit. During a lecture on connecting with our customers, it was as if someone knocked the wind from me. I sat there among my colleagues, instantly pale, and regretted an opportunity missed. I knew the lessons I’d failed to learn, and the consequences of an insincere question. I still don’t know why I didn’t react in a more fitting manner, or why the situation made me so uncomfortable. Had he been laying on the floor, injured and bleeding, I’d have reacted to save his life. Instead, I recoiled, and left an injured man to lick his own wounds. What is it about mental illness that repels us so? Why is it second nature to jump into a river and save a drowning man, while lending a hand to the same person slipping into the darkness is an alien concept to most.
Unfortunately, as with mental illness, nothing is set in stone. We don’t have every answer. This isn’t a scene from The Matrix, where the red pill sends us one way, the blue pill another. This is life, where the complexities of the entire Universe dwell within our skulls. Maybe we are conditioned to react to the immediacy of the drowning man, but without the visual stimuli, the soul fading to darkness leaves us frozen. Perhaps we are so uncomfortable with our own feelings that to accept the feelings of others causes us recoil. More disturbing still is the potential that we all carry those demons within us, and the shock of a situation like that not only shines the light of creation upon them, but allows them control of our minds. I don’t have the answer, but I wish I did. Perhaps with those answers I may have reached beneath the surface and helped the man to safety. Instead I stood, frozen, as he sank from sight.