What Side of the Binoculars are You on?

It was mid-dinner prep when my brother grabbed a pair of binoculars, peered out the kitchen window and said, “Huh. It looks like someone is stealing driftwood off our beach.  She does NOT appear to be a neighbor.”

Shamelessly, he offered me the binoculars and said, “These things get used more than you’d think.”

“Creeper,” I replied.  “Do you spy on all your neighbors?”

“It’s not spying.  I’m just making sure everything is okay.”

He offered me the binoculars.  I declined but we all stared out the window as the woman finished hefting driftwood into the back of her pick-up, probably for a landscaping project.

My sister piped in.  “You know what I really like?” she asked, partly to herself.  “Police scanners…I wish I had one. Remember how Grandpa used to listen one?”

We all remember — because that grandpa also had a history of chasing the fire trucks…just to make sure everything was okay.  Well now, it could very well and easily be that (at some point way back in the history of our small island) an extra set of hands could’ve helped in a big emergency.  It could be, right?

“You can get the scanner traffic on your phone,” I tell her.  My brother starts downloading apps. Soon we hear, “9-4-6-2-0 we have a call about motorcycles traveling too fast down D Avenue….” [krrrrrrrr, static] “10-4, I’ll check it out.”

My sister is nostalgic.  “I just love that sound.”

“I don’t know how they can make anything out — they talk so fast,” my brother holds the phone closer to his ear.

“I think they understand what’s happening because they are actually INVOLVED in the situation and not just listening in.”

My brother rolls his eyes and pretends his phone is a radio: “Breaker 8-1-9, this is Holy Ghost…Holy Ghost checking in.  I’m on the scene.”

I pretend to answer, holding my phone to my mouth: “10-4 Holy Ghost, this is JC.  I’m on my way to save.”

My sister almost falls off her stool laughing and my brother crosses himself.

I tell a friend this story.

“Very small town,” she says about the scanner.  Because we both grew up in the same small town.   

It IS very small-town except that I live in the city now and my neighbors quickly move outside to the stoop when they see someone I am dating leaving the building.  Is this any different than growing up in a small town, on an island, in a church where everyone knows a whole lot about you (possibly more than you know about yourself) by the time you’re 18?  Is that why it’s so hard to know who we are at certain times in our life? Or is this a certain being known that we all crave?

“Privacy,” I mention.  “…is the ability to control the information that’s about you.”  So why is that so easy to violate? Especially when we’re hurting.  Or when we live in a community and it’s our “job” to know what’s going on with everyone.

My third grade report card said, “She is an excellent student AND she’d do even better in school if she didn’t need to know everything that was going on about everyone.”  My truth is that I’ve become better about this over the years.  While I can still be counted on to know how to get ahold of a distant relative at 4am, I don’t have a tendency to jump into hot conversations with just anyone anymore.  I definitely do not tell the people I sit next to on the plane that I’m a social worker. Still, where is the line between open curiosity and nosiness? Between asking because you care and emotional over-involvement?

Several years ago in a personal development in-service at work, we had to take a survey on privacy.  For each topic, we had to write a number ranked from 1 to 5 if it was something we felt comfortable sharing in public, with coworkers, with close friends, or if it was something we’d keep private from everyone.  Then, based on the number, we had to color in concentric circles like a bull’s eye for a visual demonstration to show the group our comfort level with sharing information about ourselves.

“I just want you to look around,” the facilitator said, having us hold up our pieces of paper with circles colored in.  “You’ll notice that some people around the room have big privates and others have small privates…it has to do with how much we value our privacy.  Some of us have just bigger privates than others and that’s okay.” It was a good exercise until she said that and some of us burst out laughing.

I remember my grandma complaining about life in her assisted living and how a group of women talked about everyone behind their backs.  She felt watched, spied on and definitely on the far side of the binoculars.

This is probably the single worst result of age-stratified institutions.  Think about junior high and everyone in their early teens. It’s an awkward stage without enough to keep our minds off each other.  We move to cities or just grow up and establish anonymity. Then things come full circle and we somehow have limited options as we get older.  If you need care, once again, you’re in a group with your peers, and often there’s too little to do. Someone is bound to talk unless a conversation happens clear and early stating, “Hey, this is intel about me that I don’t want you to share…I’m new here and it’s my right to control what’s about me.  It’s going to take time to build trust. So until I do, consider what you know about me to be sacred and it doesn’t go to anyone, okay?”

But these conversations rarely happen.  When I talk about this in classes, the theme resonates with everyone.  I think it takes a big person to say what they need and frame a conversation about this.  There’s the risk of being accused of being too sensitive when you stand up for yourself. Or not having someone stand up for you even though they too secretly fear being exposed.

In social work, one of the biggest things we can do is help families to hear what’s not being said.  Which means thinking about what it’s like to be on the far side of the binoculars. Because often, when one person develops a disability, the scrutiny comes from one side — a biopic lens ready to see every detail about what’s wrong

Recently, I held a meeting with a couple and asked if they still cooked.  No, they said, the stove is unplugged now.  I asked what that was about and one spouse said, When I received the diagnosis of dementia, the first thing he did was unplug the stove. 

Me: Have you ever left the stove on?

Her (with a smirk): No, but that’s what the Alzheimer’s Association said to do. 

Long and short, it came down to teaching the spouse what to expect versus assuming what someone will do based on what you see from your side of the binoculars.  We were able to find a student who wanted to come and cook with the couple. We watched her pride come back as a result of her role continuation and ability to prepare a meal in her home.  This begs the question of, what kind of binoculars do you have anyway? And are you looking through them because you’re actually making sure everything is okay? Or because you’re curious, scrutinizing, or ready to be critical?

The spouse’s fear continued to come up as the weeks I met with them went on, but each time we flipped the binoculars around.  The last time I was there, I asked what was new.

“Well, now I’m making a conscious effort not to wander,” she said with a hint of sarcasm, raising her eyebrows at her partner.  This was the latest thing — she hinted — that he had to worry about.

Have you ever wandered?  I asked.

No, she shook her head.  He shrugged and I looked back at her knowing that the time had come to consider what it would take to turn the binoculars back around.

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Jill Eelkema

Having the right guidance as you or a loved one journey through life’s transitions makes a world of difference. Jill’s helped countless individuals and families work through major life changes with confidence and dignity. Her expertise in psychotherapy, care management, and facilitating tough conversations with family members will give you confidence and peace of mind no matter how tough life gets.

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