Snow in June

Image Source:  STIHL Blog , © 2019 ANDREAS STIHL AG & Co. KG

Image Source: STIHL Blog, © 2019 ANDREAS STIHL AG & Co. KG

Lunch, on a Tuesday, outside in the sunlight. My sandwich is roast beef, horseradish and buttered bread. My iPhone plays The Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed. I take off my airpods so I can listen on speaker and enjoy nature’s own symphony as well.

Now I hear people. Maybe two, or three? In the yard next to me, over the fence. The vegetation rustles, and something heavy is eased to the ground. Workmen, maybe? Or landscapers?

My phone’s speaker is already at max volume, and between the breeze and the birds and the wind chime, I can still hear it decently, but only just. Turning up the sound, I think to myself: “If it doesn’t even sound at all loud to me, sitting right next to it, then surely it won’t disturb them.”

All of a sudden, I hear the whining sound of mechanical fury. One of them started an engine. It is quite loud.

“Ah, touché,” I mutter, and put my airpods back in, conceding to my strategically superior opponent. I return to my lunch. I’ve been fantasizing about this sandwich all morning. I take another bite.

It starts to snow.

Khaki snow. Pollen, perhaps? I catch some. Too big to be pollen. Not a speck, it’s more of a flake that curls up at the edges.

I look up. Like a thousand little helicopters the flakes spiral towards the ground. They don’t seem to be coming from the trees above me, though. And the breeze has actually died down since I sat outside, so I don’t think it’s from the wind. What is it? Where is the source?

I follow the trail with my eyes. From where they land (on me), to just above my head, to the fence and – what’s this? There, at the fence, they’re not falling down…they’re falling up.

My eyes follow the tip of the fountain of flakes to the source and then I notice: they’re coming over the fence! At first, I am completely enraged with the workers next door, thinking: “Just because I played a little music, they sprayed sawdust on me?!!”

Such was my stream of consciousness. It was, of course, tree men that I had heard on the other side of the fence. They were moving some large branch too thick to be laid out on the street as-is.

The “snow” which wafted over the fence and settled on my hair, my clothes – and my dear, dear roast beef – was sawdust. With the chainsaw whirring, I retreated inside and picked through what was now a literal “sawdust sandwich.” My drink was a complete loss.

It took more than a few minutes before it even occurred to me that there was almost zero likelihood that the men knew anyone was in the next yard. They didn’t hear my music, smell my roast beef, or take any notice of the sawdust floating away in any particular fashion. So instead of roast beef for lunch, I was served a piece of humble pie, surprised that my anger had so quickly ignited antipathy towards a group of workers just trying to do their job. I clearly needed this little lunchtime lesson in empathy.

That empathy is essential to communications may seem like a given. But what is not so obvious is the need for empathy to be your first filter in perception, interpreting non-verbal communication, and in assessing whether communications are taking place at all. I perceived that the men doing tree work were engaging in non-verbal communication with me. However, my perceptions failed me because I failed to first apply empathy in my reasoning, letting my thoughts spin out of proportion and catapult me to absurd conclusions. Empathy allows us to stand in the shoes of the other person, forcing us to shift our egos, our self-centeredness, our myopic views of the world away from center stage. In doing so, it enlarges our world and strengthens our communications.

According to Harvard Professor Dr. Steven Pinker, an experimental psychologist and author, as quoted during a 2011 New York Times profile by Carl Zimmer: "Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control."

If we took the time to allow the better angels of our nature not only to direct our deeds but to serve as a sort of screen door in front of the threshold of our minds, then, just perhaps, sawdust wouldn’t get in.

Thomas Montgomery