It’s been a few years since I wrote the “Ripples” reflection for my online column, From My Home to Yours. Nevertheless, I remember the story well. I popped into a convenience store on my way to give a talk to catechists in northern California. After a long, uncomfortable plane ride and with another two-hour drive ahead of me, I wasn’t a paragon of patience as I waited for the friendly clerk to assist the person in front of me. When she extended her graciousness to me, however, I shifted emotional gears. In doing so, I recognized the rippling effect that emanates from small acts of kindness.
As Labor Day approaches, I can still picture the environment where that episode took place. The store was cramped and shabby, and the clerk was seated in a tight little space behind a cluttered counter. As work conditions go, it was pretty dismal. Not only did she seem oblivious to this fact, but she also exemplified a Benedictine notion of work as both holy and egalitarian. In creating the “Rule” for monastic living, Benedict included work as a sacred endeavor that brings one closer to God. And, because work provided a means of service to and with one another, one job was not more important than another. Both of these notions seem sadly lacking in a culture that sets retirement – a state of “non-work” – as a lifetime goal, and measures success by one’s status and title.
A few years ago, my husband, Ron, and I were in the midst of a yearlong trip around the country. As part of our long-distance drives, I read books out loud to pass the time. One of them was Nickled and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s first-hand encounter with making ends meet through working a succession of minimum wage jobs. It changed our outlook around all of those people we encountered in gas stations, hotel rooms, and cafes. Their labors essentially made our trip possible. Perhaps such awareness was seeded in that long-ago encounter with a non-harried convenience store clerk. She turned around my notion of “labor” to something both reverent and blessed. In that spirit, I wish you a very Holy Labor Day.
As the school year begins, think about ways to heighten your students’ awareness of and appreciation for the people who clean up after them. Encourage them to express their gratitude for people who labor on their behalf.
Reflect on your own work in light of the Benedictine Rule. How might you serve others in a way that sends ripples of kindness into the world?