“Does anyone else feel uncomfortable?”
Chuckles run around the assembled floor sitters, university students all. It’s the summer of 1971 and we’re being oriented to our upcoming four months of work at what is then called Ponoka Mental Hospital.
The psychiatrist leading our evening session has just asked us to share how we’re feeling. The response? Many averted eyes and nary a mumble.
As the silence fills the room, I do my standard thing: going first so others don’t have to, and using what I fondly think of as humour to defuse the tension. Well, at least to relieve the discomfort I’m feeling as, collectively, we fail to meet the leader’s expectations.
“Does that mean you feel uncomfortable, Isabel?” The psychiatrist’s question appears, unbelievably to me, to be genuine.
Duh. Come on. Fer chrissake. And, umm, yeah. I mean, isn’t that the clear meaning of the expression I used? But beyond that, of course I feel uncomfortable sharing my feelings with strangers. Who doesn’t?
To the newly minted 19-year-old me, his question also appears to be an impatient rebuke: “Come on, Isabel, share your feelings.” Or maybe a criticism: “What’s wrong with you, Isabel, that you can’t share your feelings?”
Excellent. Now I feel uncomfortable and inadequate. Thppt.
Fast forward 45 years and I’m watching a delightful YouTube video in which Idris Elba, hitherto unknown to me, asks people what they want to be when they grow up. Given that the askees are all adults—a few are seniors or close to it—it’s an ask that provokes a few chuckles.
Their answers are disarmingly honest: an actor, a drummer, a hot-air balloon pilot, a professional football coach. Their answers are revealing, too, in how they’re delivered: quietly, raucously, defiantly, matter of factly.
“What’s stopped you from doing that?”
Ah, now they step back from that precipice of self-disclosure. Each responds with a comment about, you know, people in general.
“It’s time, isn’t it? It’s taken years just to get to where we are now.”
“At a certain point in your life, if it hasn’t happened, you think it’s never going to happen.”
“I don’t think that people have enough time to dream, bro.”
“Unfortunately, real life does get in the way of your dreams, I guess.”
As I listen to them, I wonder how often I speak this way: Stopping short of owning the feeling, or of owning my life decisions and actions. I wonder, too, whether I want to speak differently sometimes, as that psychiatrist was gently suggesting, bless his heart.
But bless Elba’s heart, too. He doesn’t say, “Does that mean you don’t think it’s going to happen?” Or, “Are you saying real life has gotten in the way of your dreams?”
Because, duh. That’s exactly what they’re saying, in a way that allows them to answer without disrobing. Or without crying, maybe.
And that’s OK. They aren’t obliged to share or to hide their feelings; neither am I. And there’s no need for them—or me—to feel uncomfortable or inadequate for choosing either path.