By Kathy Berken
This column is not about politics, at least not directly. It’s about how we are living in the world, in our lives, with ourselves and others right now. I’ve always been of the mind that we become who we are in this moment, and if I am feeling frightened, disconnected or frustrated with what I see on the news and social media, then I have set a course to be a scared, lonely and angry person. Frankly, I don’t enjoy being any of those things.
So, wanting to increase my awareness of my environment, I’ve taken some action. Here are two stories that have helped me through the overwhelming feelings of helplessness I’ve experienced in the last year. Prepare to be disarmed by simplicity.
I was standing in a slow-moving line at a store recently. It was late and I was tired, hungry and getting hot in my winter gear. I just wanted to get home. The man ahead of me had a pineapple on the conveyer belt. The clerk picked it up by one of the leaves, which promptly popped out and the pineapple dropped with a thud. The clerk laughed and said, “Whoops!” starting a chain reaction of conversation. The shopper said, “Well, now we know it’s ripe! Thanks for testing it for me.” The clerk laughed, “We aim to please.”
This incident jolted me from my little suffering moment, causing me to smile. As I called out “That’s hilarious!,” they both turned to me and continued what became a cheerful and engaging conversation. For a moment, I wasn’t tired, hungry or hot. My attention shifted from me to them, so when it was my turn to check out, I felt a sense of light-hearted connection with the clerk. Noticing my Green Bay Packers face mask, she whispered she was rooting for my team (after all, I live in Vikings territory), so we talked about football while she was checking my items. We smiled and said goodbye as if we had been friends forever. I’m going to guess that clerk and the pineapple man carried the good feelings I witnessed into the rest of their day. I certainly did.
The very next day, I was at a different store attempting to exchange or return a clearance item that had been incorrectly marked. Undaunted after they told me on the phone that clearance items could not be returned, I went into “justice mode.” Rehearsing my lines mentally, I knew I needed to be reasonable, calm, understanding and willing to compromise.
After at least 45 minutes of waiting and talking with four different staff people, the last one said she would gladly exchange it for a similar item, the one I really wanted. What a relief! Grateful, I made a point of praising their great customer service. The next 20 minutes involved a lively and positive conversation between the clerk and me. Just as in the other story, I’m guessing that all involved carried the good feelings into the rest of their day.
I become increasingly aware of the profound effect that simple, often short, positive exchanges with others can have on our surroundings. When I’m in public, I notice others around me witnessing these exchanges, and I’m guessing that they are affected positively as well. Dominoes, right? Or maybe Chaos Theory?
I cannot fathom orchestrating an international peace agreement, but God is not calling me to that. God is calling me to take advantage of little opportunities to make a tiny difference in someone’s life, and to reflect on it, and to feel that I have shared a God moment with a stranger.
I’m convinced that these moments are mustard seeds of peace for the world, part of an agreement my soul made with God at my baptism and again at my confirmation.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton from 1999-2009.)