During one typical morning on the way to work, I approached my usual guy in the coffee cart, in the plan of obtaining my daily order. Since it’s usually the same on every morning, there’s a nearly silent transaction which occurs between the two of us, as I stare curiously into the dangling blue nazar while he fills my cup of coffee. On this day, it started like any other morning…but in the midst of pouring my cup of coffee, he suddenly stopped and looked up at me. I raised a surprised eyebrow back at him, awaiting some joke or amusing comment. “She’s dead,” he said. “My wife. She died in a car accident last night. She’s gone.” My eyes widened in surprise and shock. Even though I didn’t know her all that well, I had been at the cart on many occasions when his wife had been there, assisting her husband. She wasn’t a stranger; she was a familiar face that indicated kindness. Looking into his, I could see the desperation behind his eyes. I felt immediate sorrow for his loss.
I had no idea how to respond. What can anyone say in the face of utter despair which doesn’t sound contrived and banal? What can you even do to help comfort someone who is obviously trying to reach out, even to someone who is a customer but mostly still a stranger? I muttered something about being so sorry, and since I knew a scant few facts about his children in college, I told him that they could take comfort in each other. I walked away in a mental disarray, and when I sat down at my desk, I continued to reevaluate my reaction. To this day, I still can’t come to any conclusion as to the choice of my words. However, I’m not critical of myself since I didn’t bring myself to such a situation; he put me in it.
Recently, I found myself in a similar situation at work. If you’ve ever worked in software (or in any field which has requires a certain amount of technical expertise), you’re aware of the necessity to keep abreast of the latest methods and techniques, if you have any hope of staying competitive. Some people like myself are acutely aware of that condition, and especially in my case, I’m at an age where you’re paranoid of that fact. Others, though, either are not aware of that fact or simply don’t believe that it will affect them. These older workers, these Drifters retain and utilize the skills that got them hired in the first place ages ago…but they never improve themselves in terms of their chosen career. Their time becomes consumed by outside interests (community, family, etc.), and as the decades slip past, they become the personified versions of fax machines and dial-up modems.
Your body and the world at large are more forgiving of mistakes and ignorance when you are young, but when you’ve cruised around the point of middle-age, the winds spare no mercy on your sails. One of my colleagues is such a Drifter, and recently, he stumped our department. After the past few poor reviews regarding his performance, he probably has surmised his own situation, and sensing his lack of relevance, he jumped at an opportunity which was beyond his comprehension and skill. My colleagues, my superiors, and I faced a similar conundrum as I had stared into the visage of that grieving widower. What do you say to someone in that spot, when they’re decades behind the curve? What can you truthfully tell them which wouldn’t crush their spirit? Consequently, nobody said anything, and they allowed him to pursue the project, knowing that it would probably fail in his hands. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m unsure about my own lack of a response…but, in the end, I don’t feel guilty about it. I didn’t bring myself to the situation; he put me in it.