Beneath the Surface

The other day I went to a hospital to complete some routine blood tests. My appointment was early in the day yet when I arrived a number of people were already waiting. The receptionist couldn’t find my record on her computer and it took a conference of several staff members to finally locate the order for my tests. “They could be in a couple of places,” one of them said a little coolly. “Why don’t you try under ______?” Her guidance was helpful to the receptionist, if brisk, but when the right screen came up the exact nature of the tests was unclear. Someone had to make a phone call, delaying things further. Eventually, I was guided to a back room where I could wait in private.

A few minutes later, one of the staff who’d been guiding the receptionist took me to another clinic room where the tests would be done. She had an accent, Russian maybe, though I’m certainly no expert. We exchanged some pleasantries. Her manner was lovely, both warm and efficient.

“Looks like you are very busy this morning,” I suggested.

“Yes, I don’t have any helpers today,” she said, seemingly in contradiction to the number of staff at the front desk. “So things are going to be a little crazy.” By this point she was already putting a strap on my arm and had readied her needle.

“But I’m a professional,” she continued with a smile. “I can handle it.”

And the way she said it, with genuine good humor, left no question in my mind that indeed she would. I’m always grateful for such good people, working hard to make things right and compensate for problems, not because they are told to or they are afraid of being fired, but because it’s in their heart to do the right thing, no matter what is happening, especially when it comes to helping others.

Within a few moments I was done and on my way, my blood resting in labeled vials ready for the science to take over.

White sticks

Each moment offers a look into the pond, doesn’t it? — a look into an organization is what I mean to say: the inadequate systems, perhaps a technology problem or one of training or scheduling; the frustrated staff putting on a good face for me while things are being sorted out and while others impatiently wait; the professionalism leaking just a hint of the here and now, continuing challenges they face every day.

The pond reflects a certain amount of sky beneath which we cannot see, but there are clear areas where you see to the bottom, although for sure we look through the distortions of our own private assumptions and experience.

I like to think that when the water smooths for a moment and you see all the way down, you can observe the true soul of a place — which is actually no more than the soul of the people who are there, what they feel and experience and how they treat each other. You can quickly tell whether this is a good place to be or one where each day people drown just a little more.

And then you have to decide for yourself how much of all that is personal projection and how much of it is real.


  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Dear Dan,
    It’s great that you managed to get inspired even in the most unfriendly place on earth, a hospital. My experience with hospitals & doctors are mostly negative ones. In a place where one expects everyone to be human and kind, especially when you are anxiously waiting for some tests results, you are treated just as a “customer”.
    Some doctors forget when they are too busy and popular to treat their patients with dignity. One of my gynecologist once told me while joking:”I can hardly remember my patients faces because they all look the same down under”. He thought it was funny, but I knew at that time that there’s no chance for me to be treated with compassion. I stopped visiting him afterward

    It’s a beautiful post Dan, Thank you!


  • Such a lovely meditation on the layers we see, and how what we see, in the end, is always more of us. I so appreciate the exquisite writing. Thank you!!!

  • Dear Hoda~

    Yes, there is always something about an offensive joke, especially the kind you were subjected to, that both leaves a void and defines a culture. Once the joke has happened, it defines not just an offensive person, but also an offensive place, an offensive system.

    The doctor probably had no idea how much he was communicating to you about himself and through himself, and it is sometimes quite difficult in such a vulnerable moment to assertively say “I don’t appreciate your humor. Please stop!” It may have been merely thoughtless, or thoughtless and sexist, but it calls up an entire world, doesn’t it? And who would want to be part of that world? Luckily there are plenty of doctors and hospitals.

    Thank you — as always — for stopping by to share your thoughts and experiences!

    All the best

  • Dear Achim~

    Thank you so much — yes, truly we are caught in the dance of subjective and objective, constantly negotiating the irony of being deceived when most convinced of the truth. We seem to see into the pond — yet how much is that is reflection, how much is something else? Well, do you know that phrase, “there’s a cow in your coffee?”

    Many good wishes to you

  • Hi Dan,
    Wonderful post that says many things. The one thing that jumps out to me is that “the professional” chose to give you empathetic care even in tough times.

    As I teach customer service, this is always the main point. Look in your heart with *each customer and choose to give the best care you can at the moment.

    I love your “layers” analogy. It communicates this “dig deep” mantra so well!

    Warmest wishes,

  • Dear Kate~

    I nearly called this post After all, I’m a Professional to emphasize how one person’s actions can compensate so well for the inevitable glitches in the system. But it really is the multiple, shifting layers I’m trying to get at here, the way a “pond” is constructed of its reflections as well as its realities, how we see both the moving surface and if we are lucky, something of the “soul” beneath.

    As always, thank you so much for taking a moment to share your insights! Always wonderful!

    Best to you

  • Dan,

    On the health care side, this highlights why good electronic records are needed, along with a robust and timely exchange of patient data. Another passion of mine….

    I love the human connection here, more important than the electronic one. It just shows again how people make things happen through their dedication, touch, and brief interactions. We get a glimpse in to the character of the people along with the organization. Human connection produces empathy, and empathy produces insight.

    Thank you, Dan, for an insightful, well-written post. Jon

  • Dear Dan.

    I love this idea of the “soul of a place.” I think we’re always tuning in, at some level, to the soul of a place. What leads, for most people, is our intuitive sense of a place – does it feel right, does it feel good? Then the mind compensates or enhances.

    And the soul, and what the layers in the pond reveal, is us. Who is this place? We talk about systems and structures and organizations that are us, taking shape and form. We are the soul of this place.

    Lovely and thoughtful as always.

  • Dear Jon~

    “Human connection produces empathy, and empathy produces insight.” Lovely, Jon — that is a wonderful mantra for the work of supporting change of all kinds, personal and organizational, one I’ll be applying.

    It is always so great to find your own insights and extensions of the ideas presented. You are awesome! Many thanks, Jon!

    All the best

  • Dear Louise~

    I love your question, “Who is this place?” That captures the reflection that is constantly forming and unforming on the moving surface of experience. Who, indeed. When we think we see “the other” outside, a closer look often reveals another facet of ourselves being seen from within. Beautifully said, Louise. As always, much gratitude to you!

    Best wishes

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