"This isn't brought on by any specific event," he said. "It's more a general reminder that we know a lot of the stuff that lands on our desks is confronting, to say the least, and if you don't want to work on something, then say no. That's okay, no one will have any issues with that. Along the same lines, if you feel that perhaps you need to talk to someone about dealing with the material, whatever that material may be, approach your team leader, a member of the leadership team, whoever you feel comfortable with, and we'll organise a counseling session for you."
The photos I see and documents I read in a single day are more than most of you would be comfortable with even skimming. The confrontation is gone. It is all just so much paper now.
"There is someone down at corporate reception wanting information on making an application, do you want to take it?"
I went down.
He was in his eighties, with grey-blue eyes that were milky with age. He was a couple of days unshaven, with sparse white bristles on his jowls and hanging from the wattle at his throat. Hands that had been firm and strong, but had a little tremor in them now, the skin slack around his knuckles. His mouth always a little open, breathing being now task enough that the nose was not enough for his aging lungs. His mouth moved a certain way when he spoke. A hearing aid in his ear, so I was careful to speak clear steady.
They all want to share their life story, circling around and down until finally reaching the matter at hand. "I'll tell you this, back in Tasmania-" and I settled in with my best listening face, prepared to endure waffle.
He didn't waffle, or talk in circles. Events were explained in chronological order with cause and effect in place, until the end, where he was now, with a tangled mess of bureaucracy. Oral story-telling came naturally to him, with the right pauses and no stumbling over his words. He didn't over-dramatise, but didn't attempt to hide his emotional investment in the events either. The mind was well sharp, perhaps lost in the events around him, but sharp.
It took a little teasing on my part to pluck out exactly what he sought, most of which was not in our possession. Still, I called the other organisation and got enough information to set him on the right course, and figured out what we could do for him.
I let him wander afterward. The story he had told me was a sad one. Those old eyes had brimmed more than a few times, although he never broke down. I would not stop him from indulging in happier reminiscences. It was never just a smile or grin, he could do no less than chuckle when mirth took him. His eyes near disappeared the few times this happened, as his sagging cheeks rose with cheer.
"Thank you," he said, an hour and a half later. "You've been incredibly helpful, and I've taken so much of your time."
I gave him a smile and told him to go get a cup of tea.
It's all just so much paper, except when it isn't.
Fencing with red tape, paper, bureaucracy and legalese is tough if you're not already familiar with the illogical, seemingly-petty and idiosyncratic rules of this alternate but co-habited dimension. He was frustrated with the brick walls he'd run against, and although he was far from settled, having someone actually listen to him brought some calmness about him.
It isn't the first time I've snuck in some ninja therapy on a member of the public. Just to be listened to is all a lot of stricken hearts need to rest themselves enough, just enough. It is no great tax, although time that I'm sure my boss would rather I put to better use. All it requires is patience.
It isn't the content that gets beneath my skin. These years of exposure have led to a forced evolution. I have an empathy-off switch, and a different perspective on humanity.
I couldn't not listen to this man, and I couldn't not empathise with him.
He reminded me of my grandfather.
Even smelt like him.