During a cross-country road trip, my husband and I stop at Subway for a much needed break. We are both hungry and anxious to get some lunch. Upon entering, we find the place understaffed and overcrowded. Hoping to make a quick stop, we end up waiting in line for 25 minutes. Finally it’s our turn. Exasperated, I make no attempt to do anything but place my order.
As we walk back to our white pick-up truck, my husband turns to me. “Amy, you were pretty rude to that girl.”
Defensively, I reply. “No I wasn’t. I didn’t say anything mean to her.” I take another bite of my sandwich as we cross the street.
“It’s true, you didn’t say anything mean. But I wish you could have seen the way you looked at her. Plus your tone was really sharp.”
“She was taking forever! You know how I get when I’m hungry.” I keep walking.
“No excuse,” he says catching my eye. His face is full of kindness even as he mirrors to me my faults. I pause and take a deep breath. I know he’s right.
“Wait for me at the truck,” I hand him my sandwich and turn around to head back to Subway.
The crowd has died down. The teenage girl in question stands behind the counter refilling the lettuce tray. “Excuse me,” I say to her. “My name is Amy. I was in here a few minutes ago and I wasn’t very kind to you when I placed my order. My tone was sharp. I want you to know I’m sorry.”
She looks up at me. I suddenly see my 16-year-old self in her eyes. As a teen, I used to waitress at a popular, Chinese restaurant in American Fork, Utah. Sometimes we would get so busy that it was hard to remember to breathe.
“Thanks,” she smiles. “My name is Rebecca. It’s my third day on the job.”
“Well, you are doing great,” I say encouragingly. “I can only imagine how stressed you must have felt with it being so busy. Again, I’m sorry for being rude.”
My apology only takes a few moments. Soon I am walking across the street back towards our truck. Upon opening the door, my husband looks at me quizzically. He hands me my sandwich.
“So?” he asks.
“She threw lettuce at me,” I say with a laugh. “No seriously,” I pause to look at him. “Thank you for helping me be a better person.”
“Right back at you,” he states and starts up the engine. We continue our journey sandwiches in tow. As we drive, I think of what it means to be kind.
In The Analects, a student asks Confucius, “Is there any single word that could guide one´s entire life?”
This is an important question. What would you say if someone asked you this? Is there one word that can guide us in life? Sailors throughout ages have looked to the stars to guide them home. Arab astronomers invented the astrolabe to find our place in the universe. Birds of flight also navigate by stars and avoid the winds that could take them off course. Humans tell stories to aid each other in the pursuit of guiding wisdom. I imagine there are many good answers to this question.
“Is there any single word that could guide one´s entire life?”
Love is a wise teacher. Love is a wise guide. So is truth. Yet, Confucius refers to the power of reciprocity when he answers his student.
He said, “Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”
Like the very soil required for plants to grow, the practice of reciprocity forms the foundation that make a humane society possible. I imagine a human society without the presence of The Golden Rule is possible – for a short duration. But it is not a place anyone would wish to live. Nearly every act of cruelty is linked to a disregard for this simple and universal teaching.
So much of my professional life as a doula, teacher or hospital chaplain involves strengthening my capacity to empathize with, and connect to, people. Sometimes I wonder if my chosen vocations bring out the best in me simply because a significant part of my professional responsibility is based upon embodying The Golden Rule.
But, what happens when I am acting outside of that framework? How do I act in a small town in Oklahoma when I’m in a hurry, hungry, and just another anonymous traveler heading down the road? I didn’t know this young woman. No one there knew me. I would never return to that place. Gratefully, a reminder from someone who loves me -- and knows I am capable of better things -- helped me repair a small harm done.
As I spoke with Rebecca, an empathetic connection was made. Memories of my own days of waitressing helped me imagine the experience from her point of view. How would I have wanted to be treated as I rushed to make a slew of sandwiches for hungry customers while new on the job?
By seeing ourselves in others, we strengthen our capacity to empathize and care. By disregarding others, we add to the pain present in the world. Even in small things, it is this cycle of reciprocity upon which the health of the human family depends. All that we admire and appreciate about human kindness need the nourishing soil of reciprocity to flower.
May we all benefit from loving reminders to act in accordance with this wisdom.