Last week, I almost missed a connection.
It came during a seemingly nonchalant exchange in a place not unlike where many of you work.
I had stopped by a woman’s office to discuss a scheduling issue. I got my answer and was turning to leave when I heard her ask what sounded more like an afterthought.
“So,” she said, letting out a breath, “How’s it going?”
My answer employed the same throwaway language we often use. “OK, I guess.” Or maybe it was something like, “You know, same old, same old.”
Hearing my answer, the woman stared down toward her desktop. She looked like a dejected fisherman who’d thrown his line in sparse waters and received not even a nibble.
The woman’s question sounded more like an echo of her own thinking, rather than an interrogative addressed to me. It was as if her question was a plea, “How do you think I’m doing? Can you guess? You don’t have to guess; I’ll tell you. I want to tell you.”
“So,” I continued, “How are things going for you?”
“Good. OK. I guess my week could have been better.”
That’s when she let it out. The doctor had told her her husband’s cancer was back.
“Back?” Had I ever taken the time to know about the first bout with cancer? How many lines had she previously cast in my direction? Or had I simply forgotten about it?
I found a chair and listened to her tell me that her husband had just a little more than a year of life — a few more months with aggressive treatment. I settled into my chair, and she revealed her husband’s decision to bypass treatment and their plans to spend time traveling.
As her story wound to a close, the business office chatter around us returned and we parted exchanging promises to pray.
Out in the hallway, I chastised myself. I’m supposed to be trained in listening. How had I managed to thrust one foot out the door, nearly missing what the woman was trying to tell me?
The incident reminded me of the oft-repeated story of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus tells of a wounded man abandoned on the roadside. Two people passed the wounded man because they either feared for their safety or because they had more spiritually urgent business. Then along came a man from Samaria who boarded and bandaged the man until he was better.
As a kid, I often thought the Good Samaritan sounded like the modern-day AAA. I always thought the story was teaching us not to leave the homeless or the wounded outside. While the story may contain those elements, my guess is the story has more to do with our inclination to let the routine buzz of the mundane drown out the spiritual cries of those around us.
Today, as you go through the hallways and roads trading “How are you?” for reflexive smiles, stop and ask at least a few people, “How are you doing? Really.” Or, as my good friend Joel likes to ask, “How’s it going in your world?” Ask, and see if a casual conversation doesn’t become a crucial conversation.
Maybe, by end of the day, you’ll rediscover that in a culture that pushes us to seek a “Purpose driven” life, we can find some solace in what at least one spiritual teacher called the second greatest purpose of life — namely “to love your neighbor as yourself.”
“He who has ears, let him hear.”