This is my first time working outside of a church context. Even my college job was working the information desk at the chapel. And while I have encountered a few difficult people over the years, church folk will typically try to mask their awfulness. Don't get me wrong, dealing with that kind of underhanded awfulness delivers a special kind of psycho-spiritual turmoil, but it's at least a psycho-spiritual turmoil with which I am familiar.
But now? Now I get to experience horrible people in all of their naked, do-not-give-a-crap-about-other-human-beings glory. And the change of pace is not refreshing.
Thankfully, it doesn't happen too often--maybe three or four times thus far this summer--but when it does, it just blows up my day. I cannot comprehend what would possess a person to be a complete (let me pause here for a moment because the word that I use to describe these people in moments of anger is pretty strong so I'm going to self-censor and replace it with a juvenile name for humorous purposes; this undoubtedly says something about me as a person and a writer) poophead. There's no reason to be proactively nasty to people. It makes no sense. Who is spending time with these people? Who is reinforcing this behavior?
And the trouble is I work in the service industry: home of "The Customer is Always Right." This means, to paraphrase from my all-time favorite SNL sketch (Louis CK as Abe Lincoln), I have to act like I'm kind of cool with how this person is behaving no matter how mean and unreasonable they are. "No, listen I totally get it. If I was told multiple times that I can't bring food in the park but still brought it in then I would absolutely drop the f-bomb in front of a bunch of kids when I got caught. That's completely appropriate. You know, it's just..."
I'm exaggerating of course. We are firm in the situations when we have to be, but de-escalation is what we must (and should) do. This (again, correct and proper) course we take means that I can't say what I'd like to say which is: "I know this is a small sample size of your body of work, but you seem like a truly awful person and I would appreciate it if you would stop ruining the day of my staff and all of these other people."
"But Chris," you may say, "you don't know what that person is going through. You don't know the baggage that they're carrying." And that's true. There is a side of me that thinks your hypothetical argument is quite sensible and true. They could be absolutely pleasant people having catastrophically awful days. Yet there is also another side that says, "Wait, we all deal with baggage. Yet most of us have decided that we're not going to use our baggage as fuel for a flamethrower that we turn on anyone that doesn't do what we want." I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes people are just nasty to others.
As you can probably tell, I dealt with one of these experiences today. I believe I handled it pretty well, but it weighed on me the rest of the day. I literally felt it in the tightness of my shoulders. I take these things about which I have no control and I wrap them around my neck like an eighty-pound scarf. It bothers me. I'm a peacemaker by default. I don't enjoy people being angry. I'm also a rational person and I think it's stupid for a person to be angry for irrational reasons. Again, I really, really dislike poopheads.
Yet I was also wrestling with what Jesus said about loving our poopheads or, if you want to go with the more common English translation, our enemies. It's not a seamless exchange. Jesus was talking primarily about disrupting a cycle of oppression and violence with disarming, non-violent love. Jesus wanted his listening audience to love people who had conquered their land and could force them to carry heavy loads for a mile. I'm talking about dealing with unruly customers who drag down my day.
We don't really have enemies like the kind about which Jesus talked. Not in our day-to-day lives. It makes our loving more esoteric, but hypothetically should make it easier. But how do you love an enemy? When you encounter a person who, intentionally or not, drags down life for people around him or her, what do you do? How do you love that person or any other type of enemy in a tangible way?
Some Christians would say that love is sort of a variation of "The customer is always right." Yet this just allows the person to continue to wreak their own mini-havoc and prevents them from being a person who can actually contribute the unique good to the world that only they can. On the opposite end of the spectrum is what is often called "tough love," which unfortunately usually means being a poophead but you invoke Jesus in a non-profane way.
I honestly have no easy answer. I think that is why loving enemies is something with which Christians still struggle all these years after Jesus. It is counterintuitive. It is a process. It is difficult. It often requires intense labor on the behalf of many people over time. Love, for how incredible love is, just does not work like magic. That frustrates us. We like the quick fix. Loving enemies? It's a long haul. There's usually nothing quick about it (I add "usually" because God is a wildcard).
I could not have done anything today that would have single-handedly changed the trajectory of how this individual today was acting. I doubt it though I spent an afternoon second-guessing myself. I have to be fair, but I have to protect others for love goes in all directions. And sometimes how I act will go well. Sometimes I'll get four-letter words hurled in my direction. I can't control the outcome. I can only control what I do.
After the boys went to bed, I went to the grocery store to pick up a few items. While waiting in the checkout line, I witnessed a guy in his sixties named Bob buy groceries for the stranger in front of him. You hear about these "pay it forward" moments sometimes; usually there's a news story where people pay for the next person in the drive-thru line for several hours. This was an isolated moment. Bob wasn't loving an enemy, but he was loving a stranger. He didn't make a grand gesture. If I wasn't right beside it, I wouldn't have noticed. The quiet whimsy of the moment made me smile.
Love is this multifaceted thing. It is the long, slow work of relationships. It is found in these brief encounters in which you collide with a wide variety of people; some awesome, some horrible, most in between. And it is found in these random moments of whimsy. And I wonder if you love well in one area, if it does not find its way into the others.
I wondered if Bob does a good job loving his poopheads because he has figured out how to love his strangers. Perhaps not, but I have to think that practicing love in all its facets helps one to love everyone better. Perhaps that is why Jesus was so adamant that his disciples love one another. Maybe he knew that if they practiced and practiced well then they would better love their friends, their strangers, and their poopheads.