Just when we think we have it all together


By Kathy Berken

Last month I wrote about the Prayer of Saint Francis, and that a peaceful heart begins with our own actions. Since then, I had an experience that tested that. I will admit that I failed miserably.

On a bright, sunny fall afternoon, I walked into a well-known spice shop to pick up their advertised giveaways and bumped into a friend who pointed to the crowd and long lines to the checkout. No problem, I thought. I have time, so I wandered the store, found what I was looking for and headed to the end of one line that snaked around the many displays.

I was feeling good at that point. Just got a haircut, saw my friend and was enjoying the sunshine as I waited patiently to pay for my freebies. That lasted about two minutes. As a couple walked in and saw the crowd, the man said, “I’m not standing in line forever just for some spices!” This is where my silent arrogance kicked in. I can wait. I am patient (unlike that guy!). I’ll just use this time for reflection.


Then things began to unravel. A woman who was not in line slowly eased her way in front of me and just stood there, looking straight ahead. I stopped feeling reflective. Not only did she butt in without asking if it was OK, but as the people ahead of us moved forward, she didn’t, thereby leaving room for anybody else to butt in. I felt like saying, “Is this a matter of personal space or are you completely unaware of the rules for line-standing?”

Oh, don’t we have our private thoughts of judgment! But it got worse. She began to move slowly to her left, dismantling the nice, neat single file the others were keeping ahead of us. Now I felt frustrated, and continued to judge her actions. Why? Less because she butted in and way more because of how I felt about it. I pretty much blamed her for my feelings.

People kept streaming into the store and commenting about the crowd, with an employee pointing out the two lines. Well, yeah, ours was more of an untethered herd inching towards the general vicinity of the checkout.

When it rains, it pours. A woman behind me moved forward, stopping short of passing us. I surreptitiously (or so I thought) moved one step towards her, turning slightly in front of her. She noticed. “Don’t worry. I’m not butting in line!” Am I the only person who feels the way I do right now? Others surely witnessed this, and I felt embarrassed and defensive, so, of course, I lied, “Oh, don’t worry; I was just looking at how long the line is!” She knew that was not the truth. On top of it, she knew the woman who first butted into line, who was now keeping at least 10 feet of space between her and the counter where a man with half a basket of jars was checking out.

I ruined my entire afternoon. On the way home, I took a hard look at what happened. In my blind arrogance, I thought I’d be better than the man who refused to wait in line with his wife. My self-proclaimed enlightenment quickly turned defensive and judgmental, forming a bitter pill of unwelcome humility. Why do I always have to learn my lessons this way?! Painfully, I realized that virtue isn’t virtue unless it is tested in small and big arenas.

The world is filled with tension, with millions of people dealing with real problems. Still, the little things do matter. Perhaps I am still learning the meaning of Jesus’ admonition: “He who exalts himself shall be humbled and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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