Wednesday, July 21, 2010

mediocre excellence

A lot of years ago, when I painted apartments in New York as a means of supporting an interest in Zen, I bought my needed supplies at a single paint store. As for other painters, the store offered a discount to 'professionals,' but that was not the reason I patronized the store. Their discount was not the best, but what made me come back again and again was the fact that most of the salesmen were former painters -- people who knew not only the answers to a lot of practical questions but also the questions that were likely to be asked.

The store's second biggest attraction was the fact that those salesmen were not afraid to say, "I don't know." This meant that I was not left pretending I had an answer for a customer when in fact I did not ... it was good for my credibility. I didn't need a salesman who knew "the right answer" according to what the label on the can said. I needed someone who knew what the right answer was based on the experience that comes from trial and error.

I guess everyone starts with the label on the can -- with the rote answer that will allow the person delivering the answer to cover his or her ass. If "everyone says so," then I'm safe ... it must be true. I think of this as the mediocrity of excellence...a good place to begin, but a lousy place to end.

I thought about this yesterday when seeing yet another of what lately seems like a whirlwind of doctors -- all of them addressing one or another discomfort I am capable of complaining about. Each is important in his own right. Each specialty is important to the entire cause ... and yet yesterday I felt a wave of anger and fear and confusion as a well-intentioned and somewhat harried doctor addressed another facet of this discomforting and painful gem.

I felt no doubt that he had moved beyond the labels on the paint cans of his profession, but he was not talking in a way that accorded with the "me" who sought out answers from him. I didn't even mind if he said "I don't know," but I did not get the feeling he was talking to me ... which led me to distrust him ... which cranked up my already-blooming cranky fears.

True, he could cover his ass. He was bringing his expertise to bear and no one would/could fault him for it: The label plus his experience offered adequate protection. But I was tired and scared and cranky and, with an irrational child inside, wondered when he would start talking to "me."

Perhaps it is a skill that is too much to demand and yet when it's your life on the line, there is a desire to get beyond the mediocre excellences. Yes, it is probably too much to ask or realistically expect.

But it is worth remembering, I think: No one can speak a language other than their own, but they can make an effort to hear and accord with the language of those around them...assuming there is some desire to lend a hand.

It was confusing and I suppose I am still confused.


  1. There is a scene in the movie "Joe Versus the Volcano" (one of my favorite movies) where an obviously superficial character (played by Meg Ryan) responds to Joe (Tom Hanks) with: "I have no response to that."

    I think it would be much better (at times) when a person would simply say that rather than blather on to avoid being aware of me.

    I always like to borrow the line from the movie "Philadelphia" to jolt people into the present moment: "Now, explain it to me like I'm a four-year-old." Most of the time they "wake up".

  2. Definitely sucks.

    Not everyone is competent in every area. Specifically the guy who successfully specializes in some area of medicine may not have the best communication skills or "bed side manner."

    Also, Not everyone is having an on day when we need them to.

    But, sometimes, when doctor A gives me his interpretation of the findings of doctor B, it makes more sense than doctor B's presentation.

    Practically speaking, it is sometimes a good idea to have the one doctor like the internist or the one that is the most articulate in the mix collate, synthesize and present.

    Having said that how come there isn't a medical specialty called "Bed Side Manner?" Why do we have to rely on our Reiki healers, etc.

  3. I think that Kathrine Hepburn said, "Getting old is not for sissies." Not really sure what she considered sissie but I know approaching the big six oh that sometimes getting through each day is nothing but confusion. And pain.

    It can be so discouraging. It is unavoidably so.

    Other days, the sky is such a clear blue and a cool breeze blows.