It Was A Surprise Question – One For Which He Didn’t Know The Answer


How well do we really know the people with whom we peripherally share life?  Somehow in the process of embracing it all, we forget the little things or perhaps the most important things.  We forget the privilege of connection.  We forget the privilege of connection because frankly, too often we are not connected.


We’re not connected because we are busy people.  We have places to go and things to do. We live our lives on the fast track and move forward as though no one else’s schedule or agenda is as important as our own. Relationships are time consuming. Yet, without the investment of time, how do you move beyond the most surface of relationships?  Long story short, you don’t.


I’ve spent the past couple of days thinking about people in my life that I don’t know very well.  I like to think that I’m a people person and that most folks would consider me personable.  At some level I’m resistive of the fact that I sometimes shortchange people by not taking the time to get to know them.  For one thing, I don’t ask enough questions.  The only way you really get to know people is when you take the time to listen and when you take the time to ask questions. 


What do they value most? How would they describe themselves?  What would they change if they could change something?  Is their job primarily a paycheck or is it something much more?  Do they have siblings and are they close?  What do they value most about their family of origin?  What are their thoughts concerning God?  Obviously, none of these questions are the kind you’d ask a total stranger.  You might not even ask a close friend, but you get the sense of where I’m going.  There is a big difference between surface relationships and really knowing people.


As I write the words, I’m reminded of the story of the college student who wasn’t prepared for his final exam.  The student thought he was ready. He had formulas memorized and filed away in his head.  I guess you could say the final exam was a game changer for him. The college professor threw him a curve ball. That was  true for others in the class as well.

The professor articulated to his class that he had taught them everything he could teach them about business.  He expressed confidence that his students had learned everything from his teaching that they could absorb.  So instead of the exam they anticipated, the exam was a single piece of blank paper.  He verbalized that he only had one question to ask. It was a simple question: “What is the name of the lady who cleans this building?”


How many people do we pass by in the course of a day and never take the time to register that they are even present?  I generally speak to people, but do I really speak to people.  More often than not, a quick hello doesn’t resonate with a message that “you’re important to me.”

Reportedly, Walt Bettinger, the CEO for Charles Schwab, was one of the students who didn’t know the answer to the professor’s question.  Yet he had seen the cleaning lady on a daily basis.  Never once had he spoken to her or asked her name.  That final exam became a life lesson for him and he opted to do it differently going forward. 


Interestingly, as part of the hiring process for staff, he opts to take them for a breakfast interview.  It is an important test.  He always prearranges with the restaurant that they will mess up the applicant’s order.  He wants an opportunity to see first hand how they respond.  It gives him a snapshot of their character.  Does the applicant calmingly and kindly not allow the wrong order to mess up their interview or do they respond with frustration and anger?


By the way, before I move on to my next thought, the lady’s name that cleaned the building was Dottie.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve met some new people and I’ve discovered you learn a lot by simply asking questions.  People like to share their stories.  When you take the time to ask and to listen to their answers, they feel valued and important.


I’ve been surprised by some of the information that’s come my way from talking to people in the past couple of weeks.  Honestly, you’d never be able to tell by looking the kinds of  challenges or uphill climbs that some people embark just to get through the course of a day.


I recently read the reflections of a minister who approached this same topic.  He talked about the upscale apartment complex he called home.  He didn’t say it was upscale, but he said that most of the residents were young, professional and private.  I interrupted that to mean upscale. At some point after the minister moved in, he noticed a new tenant in the unit next to his apartment.


If I remember correctly, I think he used the term “awkward” as the descriptor to describe him.  His new neighbor didn’t fit the profile you’d anticipate or expect to find.  The new guy was an old guy.  He also reportedly didn’t keep the inside of his apartment very neat.  The man reflecting his thoughts wrote that although he had never been inside the apartment, he sometimes saw inside the man’s apartment though an open window or through an open door. 


The General would describe the scene he subsequently describes as clutter. In fact, she’d probably offer the thought that I could have been the old man. Reportedly, laundry baskets filled with things were stacked from the floor to the ceiling. Okay, so it does figuratively sound a little bit like the appearance of my closet. I  do have one laundry basket filled to overflowing.


The man’s place was a disaster.  Perhaps it was out of a sense of guilt, but the minister sharing his thoughts said he’d given thought to hosting a floor party and getting to meet and know his neighbors, but he never found the time. He sometimes made small talk with folks in the hallway.  That included the older man as well.  Yet, apart from a comment or two about the weather or the need to have a good day, conversation was non-existent.


I think he said it was on a Monday night. He got home and noticed police officers outside the man’s apartment.  He had the thought, “Maybe someone complained.”  At some point, he heard reference made to the coroner. That’s when he connected the dots.


Daryl Dash, the minister, expressed it this way: “My neighbor died last weekend.  They found his body on Monday.  A police seal now secures his door.  My neighbor is gone.  So is the man who was killed by a falling tree limb in a local park last Friday.  So is the man who was hit by a train near me early on Monday morning.  Death surrounds me this week, even in this young community.”


He concluded his thoughts by saying: “Nothing might have changed if I’d invited my neighbor for a coffee, but I would have known his name.  I might have known his story.  Now, I’ll only know him as the hoarder next door. And that’s no way to know a neighbor”.


All My Best!

Apple Computer, Inc.




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2 thoughts on “It Was A Surprise Question – One For Which He Didn’t Know The Answer”

  1. Sally, my wife, is the person that cleans my building and the church too along with Rodney, Wilma, Diane, Dave, Pam (the minister’s wife) and Donnie. And I used to clean the hangar at the airport where I had my aircraft charter and flight school business along with Tom, Christ and Jean who did the daily cleaning. And just this morning I thought about our old neighbor who moved into a new house 2 blocks away from our new house in 1997. It’s been 20 years and even though they presented us with a house plant, a tree actually, as a house warming gift, we’ve never invited them over for a visit or for dinner. The woman and her husband, Katherine & Jim, are now “empty-nesters” like us, since their kids are all grown up now too, and her dad has died and only her mom is alive living in theirm old hpouse next door to our first house in Girard. The “house tree”, is now 8 foot high and only fits in the vaulted ceiling area of the living room. But I still remember how honored we were when she invited us to her wedding over 25 years ago. And we attended too and had a great time.
    That’s about all we know about them except for a few minor details. TIME TO JIM 7 KATHERINE OVER BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. ~ maybe I’ll get to know them both better too.

    Carpe Diem,

    Liked by 1 person

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