Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Colonel's Green Beans

March 24, 2013

Dear Friends,

Often we develop emotional habits that serve us well in the “ordinary normal.” However, these habits can have  a treacherous capacity to turn on us in unexpected ways in time of stress. The story of “The Colonel and the Green Beans,” has pushed me to think about the dangers of becoming too dedicated to patterns of living that I habitually find comfortable.

The Colonel’s story came to me in three parts. These parts, however, were not exactly a beginning, middle, and end. As with other stories from my adventure, you’ll have to devise a proper beginning, middle and ending and figure out the meaning for you from the context of the things you have learned on your life journey.

The first part of the story that caught my attention was the Colonel’s posture and his hat.

At each meal the Colonel was brought into the dining room in his wheelchair by a staff member. So far as I observed, he  did not choose to help himself although he appeared able to do so. He sat stiffly in his wheelchair, holding his body rigidly, as though he were on inspection. Each day he wore a billed cap set ‘uber’ straight on his head as though his cap’s position were a “regulation” practice that had become automatic for him. He made little or no eye contact. In response to his icy isolation, no one made a gesture of greeting to him except for the man I came to think of as the Sergeant.

The Sergeant was (I guessed, of course) a former military man. I thought this in part because in the rehab unit he often acted as if he were still on duty and it  was his responsibility to muster a group of wounded, shocked survivors and keep them moving. He regularly made a place for the Colonel at his table. The Sergeant was the only resident to whom I saw the Colonel speak voluntarily .

One evening at dinner a small storm of distress and anger erupted at the Sergeant’s table. One of the staff members immediately moved to deal with the disturbance.

At the moment other residents blocked my view of what was happening. Then I heard the Sergeant say in an “I’ve-got-everything-under-control” voice, “Oh, it’s nothing serious—it’s just the green beans.” The staff member said something I could not hear, and then the Sergeant said, “Well, if it’s not too much trouble, could you bring him something in place of the green beans?”

This was done, and as things settled down and people became preoccupied with their own dinners, I could see the Colonel with a look of angry distaste pushing small pieces of what looked like carrot around his plate.

The next piece of the story occurred two days later. I had stopped in the activity room after therapy, and while reading there, one of the administrative staff ushered an elegantly dressed woman to a table at the far end of the room. Shortly a staff member wheeled the Colonel into a place at the table where the woman was sitting.

“Ah, ha,” I said to myself. “The Colonel’s lady has come to visit.”

Conversation between the two became immediately less than amiable. They were keeping their voices low, however, in a clear effort to avoid being overheard. I moved further away to support their desire for privacy, and resumed my book.

After a short interval, however, I looked up when a third woman joined the Colonel and his lady at the table. Having met her at orientation, I recognized this woman as the dietitian in charge of food services. As the low-voiced conversation continued, the Colonel continued to sit rigidly, stiffly, his body language plainly expressing his anger and impatience.

After a short interval, the staff member returned and wheeled the Colonel away, leaving the two women sitting at the table, looking at each other in wordless frustration. Then after a few words together, they too went out of the room.

The last part of the story occurred some days later. Residents were again gathering for dinner, and the Colonel was seated at the Sergeant’s table. Those of us who had arrived early were seated at the front of the dining room, and food service had already begun. I looked down at my plate, and there in all their vegetable glory, were green beans.

I confess that with an inwardly wicked grin, I began to watch the Colonel who was now being served.

The Colonel’s displeasure became immediately apparent and highly audible. He threw his napkin on the floor, and banged his fist on the table.

I,” said the Colonel in thunderous tones, “I do not wish to be served green beans. Remove them.”

Again a staff member came immediately. He quietly, courteously, rectified the strategic blunder. However, everyone within earshot clearly understood that the Colonel did not wish to be served green beans. So far as I know, the staff kindly insured that it did not happen again. I saw no further disturbance at the Sergeant’s table in the days that followed.

But I continued to think carefully about the pieces of the story I had observed.

As a resident, I was aware of the difficulty in monitoring my own behavior under stress. I knew first hand the frustration and helplessness that residents can experience when—despite the efforts of patient thoughtful staff—when it becomes ridiculously difficult to get the smallest request met. Self-control and self-management are not always easy, and sometimes in the stress of the moment impossible to achieve.

At this level, my sympathy was with the Colonel. My guess was that the Colonel from a former place of privilege and power found the common life of the unit incredibly difficult to tolerate. To him, I feel certain, it seemed a small thing to ask that his frustration not be increased by the indignity of being served green beans. And despite his rigid code of behavior, the green beans were too much—he snapped.

But at another level, his behavior pushed me into some serious thought about my own.

I remembered something Paul wrote:

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and, being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2: 5-8)

At this beginning of Holy Week I am remembering with you that Jesus calls us by His behavior to be willing to lay down privilege and power whatever our  experience and personal identity may have been.

Seeking to learn how to deal with green beans in a Kingdom-honoring fashion.

Have a joyous, thoughtful Easter.

See you next week.


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