I went into a store after work to pick up a few groceries. It was late, and I was in the usual rush. The young checkout girl cracked her gum, scanned the groceries and punched in numbers on items that repeatedly wouldn’t scan. Only once she glanced at me, seemed to sense she should say something and said “You look tired.”
Suddenly I felt incredibly old–especially compared to this teenager–and much more tired than I had been a moment before. Then I remembered that she had said the same thing to me the last time she had checked me out. Either I was continually looking like I was on the verge of collapse or the young woman was trying, although not too successfully, to say something caring.
In another grocery store line, the young clerk smiled as she admitted that she was new at her job but was trying to do it well. She asked what kind of dog I had (dog food purchase) and told me how much she wanted a dog. Her conversation went beyond, “How are you?” and “Have a nice day!” without taking up too much time. I left the store strangely cheered. Whenever I see her again, I will stand in line to be waited on by her.
Contrast her with a clerk in a small store who when asked if they carried a certain item, barked loudly that she didn’t think they did and she didn’t have time to check. A would-be customer left, vowing never to return and derived a secret satisfaction from seeing a permanent “closed” sign on the store a few weeks later.
Because our society has become so accustomed to rude or grudging service from those who serve the public, any exception will stand out in our minds. But what bothers me more than how I am treated is that lately I’ve found myself, almost unwittingly, growing more abrasive in the way I react. And I know that I’m not alone. Although aging doesn’t necessarily produce rudeness, it brings with it some physical pain and disappointment that can affect not only how we feel but how we act toward others.
When I find myself wanting to give–and occasionally giving–people a piece of my mind that I can’t afford to lose, I need to re-read what Walter Wangerin, called the “the master of the moral tale,” wrote in his classic book Ragman and Other Cries of Faith (Harper & Row, 1984). Wangerin said that every time we meet another human being we have an opportunity: “It’s a chance at holiness. For you will do one of two things, then. Either you will build him up, or you will tear him down. Either you will acknowledge that he is or you will make him sorry that he is–sorry, at least, that he is there, in front of you. You will create, or you will destroy. And the things you dignify or deny are God’s own property. They are made, each one of them in his own image…There are no useless, minor meetings. There are no dead-end jobs. There are no pointless lives. Swallow your sorrows, forget your grievances and all the hurt your poor life has sustained. Turn your face truly to the human before you and let her, for one pure moment, shine. Think her important, and then she will suspect that she is fashioned of God.”
The apostle Paul put it this way, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6 NIV). Whenever others are serving you and a problem arises, you have the opportunity to respond graciously rather than to react naturally. To do so is not only the right thing to do; it will probably help lower your blood pressure and make you happier, too.
So the next time you’re in the checkout line, don’t give the salesperson just cash or your credit card, give her or him a little grace.