On any given day while you’re trying to do your work — I’m referring to the activity officially designated as “work” — there’s a good chance you’re trying to do something that the world would call “personal.”
The so-called personal things require time and effort. Many need to be done during so-called working hours. They may involve pleasure but more often they don’t.
Maybe you’re dealing with a sick dog. Or an ailing child. Or that weird sensation that’s been waking you up at night and that you really ought to get checked out ASAP.
You may be trying to get your car repaired. Or your refrigerator. You may be consoling a friend in crisis, fixing that leaky pipe, handling the aftershocks of a stolen wallet.
Or, in my case Tuesday, you’re trying to help a relative get to the dentist.
My relative lives on a distant coast. She struggles daily with many aspects of life that most of us find, at worst, mere nuisances. Her struggles are psychological and physical, but despite her difficulties, she lives independently and takes pride in doing things on her own.
Given how much she values her independence, I do my best not to interfere, resisting my impulse to say, “Let me do that for you,” even when I imagine it would be easier for me to do and would make life easier for her.
“Imagine” is a key word here.
Recently, my relative told me that she had pain in her mouth. It had persisted for weeks. She told me about calls she’d made in an attempt to get an appointment with someone willing to deal with her special challenges.
I encouraged her to keep trying, but when she told me that she’d had no luck and the pain was getting worse, I asked if she’d like me to make some calls.
“Would you mind?” she said.
So, with the delusion that I’m a person who can leap giant bureaucracies in a single bound, I made a call. I was told I had to call somewhere else. I did. I was told I had to call somewhere besides that. I obliged, silently muttering, “I have work to do.”
I spent a long time on hold. I was cut off. I called again. I listened to the static-filled music as the minutes ticked away. Finally, when an automated voice said I could leave a callback number, I did.
Of course I did. I couldn’t wait. I had work to do!
This wasn’t the first time I’d tried to figure out a medical situation for my relative. When her longtime psychiatrist closed up shop and she tried in vain to find a new one, I asked if she’d like help.
She gave me names and numbers and I made some calls. She’d told me that the people she dealt with were hard to deal with, but I’d imagined she was simply too sensitive.
As I made call after call, explanation after explanation, I came to see that her frustration was grounded in fact. Some people I talked to were nice, but others were vague and brusque, even rude.
Sorry, the psychiatrist wasn’t taking new clients. Sorry, the psychiatrist didn’t deal with these issues. Sorry, wrong insurance. Nope, private pay would not be accepted, not without the right insurance.
That was several months ago, and my relative still doesn’t have a new psychiatrist. But a dentist? How hard could that be?
On Tuesday, I waited for the promised callback. When it hadn’t come after a couple of hours, I called again and this time got a live person, a sympathetic live person. And yet when the call ended, I still hadn’t accomplished what needed to be done to get my relative to the dentist.
I glanced at the time. I’d try again tomorrow. I had work to do.
Fortunately, I have a job that allows me to turn that “personal” quest and defeat into this column, which I hope will make two brief points.
One: The medical establishment is not set up for those who struggle. I have no ready solution for that, but I’d encourage people who answer the phones in doctor’s offices to muster patience for the struggles of the callers.
Two: Sometimes the so-called personal is work too. It’s good for all of us to remember that on any given day our co-workers, just like us, are juggling personal obligations with the work they’re paid to do. The happy news is that somehow it usually all gets done.
Mary Schmich wrote this piece for the Chicago Tribune.