I dispense a lot of advice on this blog.
Clothing advice, dog-raising advice, aging advice, housekeeping advice – and most often – happiness advice.
But it’s a lot harder to give advice in real life than it is to write about all my incredible (incredibly small, that is) wisdom.
I really do believe my advice is good… and that I truly possess a bit of wisdom.
Theoretically, I am a genius.
Everything seems so clear to me when it is not actually me.
In real life, I struggle.
But there are some things I know from my own experience, and not just from watching everyone and everything (which is my job, being a writer).
And there is something I need to share. A lesson I learned the hard way.
Stick your nose in someone else’s business.
Twenty years ago, when I worked for Humongous, Inc., I hired a smart, lovely young woman as a financial analyst in my department.
I had interviewed Lynn six months earlier for a different position, and though I liked her very much and was impressed with her skills, I hired another candidate, whose experience was just slightly more relevant to the job. But when I had another opening months later, I called Lynn and asked her if she were still available and interested. And so I just hired her over the phone and didn’t even bother to bring her back in.
When Lynn showed up for her first day of work, the change in her appearance was dramatic. While she had been very thin six months earlier, she was now emaciated. I asked her if she was well, and she told me she had been fighting with anorexia for years, and some periods were better than others. She was getting professional help though, and was responding again. She was open and optimistic.
Her work was accurate and timely. She was insightful, reliable, well-liked and cheerful. But she did not put on any weight. She became thinner and thinner.
Her co-workers became concerned. They came to me with reports that she ate a lettuce leaf for lunch, and then vomited in the bathroom. That she came in early so she could park as close to the building as possible, because she could not walk more than a dozen yards. That she took the elevator even when it was only a single floor to climb.
I worried. But I didn’t want to interfere. I didn’t want to intrude on her personal life.
I wanted to mind my own business.
I told my husband one evening that I thought it was only a matter of time before Lynn ended up in the hospital. I cared about Lynn, but I have to be honest and admit that I also worried about covering her responsibilities if she had to be out for an extended period.
The next time Lynn came into my office with an analysis, I asked her to stay a minute. I closed the door.
“I’m worried about you,” I said, “You seem even thinner than a few months ago, and you look so pale.”
“I know,” said Lynn. “I’m working on it and I’m in counseling and my family is really helping. Things are turning around and even though I look thin, I’m feeling better.”
“Your friends say that you don’t eat.”
“It’s hard for me to eat in front of people because I have lots of weird habits I’m trying to break. But I have a decent dinner with my parents every night.”
“We want to help you with anything you need,” I offered.
“Everyone is great here. I love working here. And HR has talked to me too, and they are very supportive.”
“That’s great!” I said. And I was extremely relieved. Relieved that she said she was feeling better. And relieved that HR was involved. And that perhaps I didn’t have to be.
Lynn called in sick on Friday. She said she had been in a minor car accident and was just a little sore.
And Monday morning Lynn’s sister called me. Lynn had died over the weekend. Her heart just gave out. She was 32.
I learned later that our Human Resources department had briefly spoken to her, but had not been very involved. I learned that she was not in counseling. I learned that there had not even been a car accident. I learned that Lynn was very good at telling people what they wanted to hear.
Could I have saved Lynn by intervening? By being more insistent? By interfering?
But I will never know for sure. What if I had been just a bit more interfering? And a few other people had too – perhaps our cumulative interference might have made an impact.
But it haunts me.
Because the truth of it is – I did not want to know. I wanted to mind my own business because it was EASIER. On me.
There are other words for Interference.
Concern. Involvement. Responsibility.
Please listen. Listen to me and listen to those who are in pain.
Don’t back off.
Don’t mind your own business.
You may not be able to save someone.
But you might.
What if you could?