Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Beautiful encounters

It’s often difficult to break through barriers of social ettiquette to reach authenticity with people. Every day I’m aware of this while I greet customers and coworkers in over a hundred mini conversations throughout the day: “Hey! How are you this morning? It’s good to see you. Are you having a good week?” I want the hear the real answer, but the truth is, it’s more efficient in business to have people give the short, standard replies, the “Oh, fine. I’m tired, but good,” and so forth. Customers understandably grow impatient in line if I take too long with the person in front of them. However, I relish those moments when I truly connect with a customer, even if just for that moment.

Today I was taking a lady’s order and noticed either she wasn’t having a great day or she wasn’t a very warm person, because her face was quite serious and her tone very businesslike and no-nonsence. As I prepared her latte, I asked about her day. She didn’t look me in the eyes but for a second, looked down, and forced out a very unconvincing mumble of “Fine.”

In these circumstances, I don’t often know how to proceed. Do I drop it and ignore her response? Do I take that as a hint that she doesn’t want to talk? Or do I gently show some interest in knowing more? Well, seeing as I’m not so great at ignoring these kinds of things, I waited and discreetly watched her as I finished her drink. She looked like she was holding back tears. My heart went out to her.

As I handed her the latte, I caught her eye, “I really hope your day gets better.” Now the tears were rolling down, but she didn’t turn away, just stood there fiddling with her drink and gave what seemed to be an unconscious sigh of frustration. I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t turn away, even though maybe that’s what she wanted. “Is there anything I can do?” I finally asked, hoping it sounded as sincere as I felt.

She just stared at me, perhaps a little surprised, then gave a faint hint of a smile. “Your smile helps,” she said. “Actually,” she blinked back more tears, “I found out today that my job ends in a month.”

She looked so alone across that counter. I sighed, “Oh... I’m so sorry. That must have been awful news to receive.”

Her face reflected some embarassment about her tears, which she followed up with, “I’m trying not to let it affect me, but...”

I stopped her. “Of course it will affect you. What a big unexpected blow.”

She was quiet. "I was there for 20 years... I didn’t think this would happen.”

“Wow, that’s a long time, of course you didn’t. I really am sad to hear that.” And I was, though I have no clue what the imminent threat of losing a long-held job feels like.

As she turned to go, I asked for her name and told her I would keep her in my thoughts and prayers for a new job. She smiled with her teary eyes and walked away, and I realized my eyes were on the verge of tears themselves. I felt humbled by how tempted I was at first to judge her as an unfriendly person, how wrong I would have been.

I don’t know if I’ll she’ll be in again, but I know I won’t forget her. I began praying that God would comfort and encourage her. It was one of those more -rare-than-I’d-like experiences at work where I felt like, maybe, in this moment, I was the answer to my own prayer for comfort for this lovely woman.

In addition to a new job, I’m praying this will become a piece of beautiful rubbish in her story, when things looked so ugly for awhile, and then - the beautiful unexpected emerged. I won’t be the answer to that prayer, but God is so creative, I’m sure He’s already got something in the works.

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