A good way to trash one’s assumptions on a regular basis is to work for hospice. I asked the brother of a new patient recently how many brothers and sisters he had. He paused and said,
“I’m not sure….about 19.”
Me: “’About 19?’” [I thought to myself. How could he not be sure? How could it be that many? I then paused, which made him realize his answer needed some elaboration. Or to put it differently, I needed some education.]
The brother: “I mean that’s how many are from my father.” [He also mentioned a small country they are from.]
I gave a long “ohhh,” laden with an I-get-it-now intonation. But I was not sure I fully did. Not wanting to burden him with more questions and my ignorance, I went on to my usual offer to provide spiritual care. Afterwards, I fell to musing what it would be like to be in a family that had give-or-take 19 sibs. Keeping track of birthday celebrations could get complicated. (Just kidding.)
Despite my extensive exposure to many cultures throughout my life through teaching English as a Second Language and having lived in foreign countries including Japan, Colombia and El Salvador, my assumptions about such basic things as family persist, such as knowing all of one’s siblings fairly well even if estranged, and fitting all of one’s family members into neat categories. This conversation reminded me that I continue to have an image of a white, middle class American-born family in my mind when I meet new people.
At least I do not assume an individual is straight. In fact I was delighted to see a new symbol in our documentation drop-down menu, “PAR,” that indicates when the primary caregiver of the patient is their partner. Like laws, documentation regulations eventually catch up to reality.
As a chaplain, I encounter people from so many countries and socio-economic backgrounds and races, so it is not possible to keep in mind all the differences there might be between them and me. What to do? We in the helping professions can’t continually keep every variation in mind. All we need is one assumption: assume that at any time we will have to revise our assumptions in the heat of the moment. Through being alert to our own instant sensitivity training, we will become more and more a part of the human family.