Out of Context

There is that moment when our brain strikes a flash, “I’ve seen that person before.” “I know that woman.” “What is his name?” We pass by them at the bank or see them in the frozen food aisle of Trader Joe’s or catch sight of them at our daughter’s basketball game. Who is that? It takes a few moments, or sometimes we can’t reel in the reference at all because it’s out of context.

Our brains, these wonderful computers that enable us to process information and put together bits and pieces of sensory input to make sense of the world, like context. They like to be able to put like with like. This set of people belong to the PTSA at Junior’s school. These other folks go in the category of co-workers. God forbid you run into the medical assistant in the lobby of the cinerama, because that doesn’t make sense. Our brains don’t like well-rounded references. The medical assistant belongs in scrubs at Dr. Steeke’s office. Period. He doesn’t have a life beyond that. Does he?
Sunday Eve and I headed to the office supply superstore for more binders and just as my head was deep in a debate of the relative merits of dividers with pockets versus those without, I heard my name called. Turning in response, my eyes took in the tall blonde woman a few feet away. The fluorescent lights reflected off of her John Lennon glasses and she wore an enormous smile, clearly pleasantly surprised to see me. Her head tilted to one side and next to her was a cart full of notebooks and pencils, dry erase markers and post-it notes. It took me a minute.
In that minute before I “placed” her, what I saw was a lovely woman, about my age, who was relaxed, open, and ready to engage in conversation. As soon as my brain caught up with my senses, I was able to recall exactly where I knew her from, but my experience of her narrowed. Not in a bad way, but suddenly there were parameters around her: she does ‘x,’ likes to do ‘y,’ and knows ‘Sally, Jesse, and Rafael.’
Two weeks ago, Bubba and I went out to the movies together. As I stood in line to buy tickets, a tall, handsome gentleman popped out of the lobby to call to a large group of people waiting on the sidewalk. He waved them over, embraced a few of them, and they all headed inside together. It took me a few minutes to realize that he is the girls’ pediatrician. Not only have I never seen him out of his lab coat and giraffe stethoscope, but I’ve never seen him after dark. Or with his family. As someone who isn’t there to serve my needs.
All too often we let our brains trick us into thinking that we know more about other people than we really do. While it is indisputably useful to be able to recall information as sets of data that fit together, I wonder whether we might be well-served to occasionally see people “out of context.” Setting aside our previously constructed containers for the people in our lives may help us to broaden our understanding of each other. The first time I ever saw Bubba in a work setting I was completely floored. The first time I watched him draw with our daughters I was brought to tears. Despite the fact that we have known each other for over twenty years, I have new things to learn about him as well. There is no doubt I can learn more about the rest of the people I think I “know.”
8 replies
  1. Wanda
    Wanda says:

    I remember my shock when I saw my favorite teacher in the grocery store buying toilet paper.

    Much of the work I do with couples includes getting them to let go of the assumptions they have about who their mate is…what they think, like, mean. We're not static and even if we once knew something about our partner, it may not still be the case.

  2. XLMIC
    XLMIC says:

    I think about this "context" thing all the time. It is so interesting how we categorize and romanticize… and think we really "know" about these people we see "all the time"… but always in a pretty narrowly defined context! Very cool post!

  3. Deb Shucka
    Deb Shucka says:

    A really thoughtful and truth-filled post. As I teacher I run into this all the time – being seen by students in the real world and observing their shock and discomfort. Have you seen Wanda's post for today? That video fits perfectly with what you're saying here.

  4. Brenda Rothman (Mama Be Good)
    Brenda Rothman (Mama Be Good) says:

    Remember when you hoped never to see your teachers outside of school? Just too weird.

    Love this post. Very Zen. We can re-think our children and ourselves the same way.

  5. Thereza Howling
    Thereza Howling says:

    I agree with all that has been said here. It is important that we keep our minds open, especially because people change and we can't make assumptions or just label whoever comes our way from a time we met before.
    Your posts help me keep my mind open!

  6. graceonline
    graceonline says:

    "Setting aside our previously constructed containers for the people in our lives may help us to broaden our understanding of each other."

    No matter how many times I learn this lesson, sooner or later, I have to learn it all over again, as if for the first time.

    I've watched a few episodes of "Undercover Boss," and while it appears, after the very first two or three shows, that the bosses assure there are no bad apples in the segments and plenty of shining stars with sad personal stories, what strikes me about the undercover bosses time and again is how they discover the human side of their business. How they learn that the people they rely on to build their widgets and serve their customers are human beings, quite often human beings going to work day after day, giving it their all while caring for chronically ill family members, juggling kids/school/Little League/and a second part-time job to pay for the music lessons and shoes.

    It boils down again to compassion, doesn't it? When we know what is behind a person's behavior, sometimes it is easier to give them a little slack.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *