, , ,

I’ve worked in the world of customer service long enough to know two things: people can be jerks, and so can I. I can choose to hide behind my counter, and enforce the rules, or even, invent them. After all, I’ve got the power, however petty, in most interactions – I am the gatekeeper between payment and services. Stand in line, exact change preferred, and you’ll get satisfaction. One of the most longstanding, untold jokes behind the name tag, and the “happy to help” slogans is this: to get good customer service, be a good customer.

But one gets soul-weary of saying, “No, we can’t” or “That’s not our policy.”

I know why I often have to say “no” – to keep the peace, to ensure fairness, to keep consistency. And when met with needs that threaten to overwhelm, armed only with the tepid phrase, “I wish I could help…I really do…” it’s much less costly to just to sorry, and leave it at that.

So I long for days like today. It makes me reconsider when and where and how I say, “YES! Let me find a way for you. Let’s see if we can make this work. Let’s find a way through the forest of rules and convention and habit and fear and risk, and find a solution.”

Today, my yes was a spare birthday card. I am oft overwhelmed by the tidal wave of need – from homes to freedom from addiction to the painful, unpredictable shadows of mental illness, and think to myself, “I can’t get involved here. It’s too much.”

But today, I saw someone I appreciate lose his cool. Behind that smile and admirable work ethic, behind the jokes and the friendly teasing, was a man who felt utterly ashamed of his present situation, particularly that he couldn’t afford to buy his wife a birthday card. He wasn’t asking me for anything – in fact, he brushed me off as fast as he tried to wipe away unwelcome tears.

So instead of thinking to myself that I couldn’t really help at all – I can’t promise him a permanent home, cure his addiction, replace his family, restore his reputation – I thought, “A birthday card. I can do that.”

I know this might sound completely cliched, or even naive, but the change that an available birthday card wrought in the defeated mood of this dear man was thrilling to me. One small step on the path to hope – a moment that says, “You can catch a break after all. It’s not all bad.”

I have often appreciated the moments when someone gave me something so small that it seemed insignificant in the light of my heavy burdens, but each kindness was one more resistant truth in the relentless onslaught of life.

It’s like feeling that first drop of rain while the sky is still clear, or finding a few green shoots tucked underneath the dead leaves of your patio plants just before you decide to chuck them out.

I want more of these moments. I want more yes. I want to give every available birthday card, piece of tinfoil, extra cracker, spare pen, plastic bag, and glass of water away with joy instead of annoyance.