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Don’t let people be invisible to you | Column

In graduate school, I became casually acquainted with our library’s director. I would make my polite “Hellos” and “How are you’s” whenever I saw her at the counter to check out my next stack of research materials. She was all of maybe five feet tall with a large build, wore professional, appropriate director-of-graduate-school-librarian attire and regularly pushed her heavy-framed glasses back up her nose when she talked. I allowed myself to be quite content with this level of interaction until the day when I learned that she would be the keynote speaker at my school’s graduation ceremony.

She stood before us, her head barely in view over the podium, opened her mouth and spoke. When she was done, all of us — every person in that auditorium — leaped to our feet as we loudly applauded what we had just heard.

This petite, polite, soft-spoken library director shared with us what was inside. Her insights, wit and ability to see the world in ways that we had never considered left us completely captivated and completely inspired.

As I left that graduation ceremony, I must admit that I felt shame — shame that I had allowed myself to place this amazing human being into my own neat little box of “librarian” parameters. I saw only what I expected to see — and I missed out — big time.

If you were to visit a certain convalescent care center near Detroit, Mich., you might notice a middle-aged man named Jim sitting in the day room. His muscles have long since stiffened and become rigid as his symptoms of multiple sclerosis have advanced. But if that is all you saw, you would be missing the talent of one amazing jazz musician. Fortunately, a nurse who worked with him did see more. She was able to arrange for a brace that could hold a harmonica to be attached to his wheelchair. Jim is not only able to continue playing music, but he is able with the support of many friends to continue performing at the annual Detroit Jazz Festival to a standing-room-only crowd. He was once one of the top jazz saxophonists in the region, often backing up visiting national celebrities. And today, because someone saw what was on the inside, Jim is not only able to captivate a crowd, but inspires everyone who comes to know him.

Someone said something to me a few years ago that took me by surprise and changed my worldview. She simply asked, “Who is invisible to you?”

If you were asked as you left a crowded room to identify who was in that room, who would you not have “seen?” Who would you have checked off as “librarian,” “old” or “liberal” and dismissed into a mental stereotype box? Have you ever experienced being “invisible” when someone only sees what she or he wants to see and does not try to get to know who you really are?

Sometimes, I think that is what people are asking for more than anything else when coming to counseling — just to be seen and heard. When it happens, we drop our facades, our stereotypes, our assumptions and our blindness, and truly meet another human being.

And that is inspiring.

Steve Pults, LMHC, is an individual, couple and family therapist at Mercer Island Youth & Family Services. To find out more, go to www.mercergov.org.

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