I spent nine long years working in foster care trying hard to find something to smile about so the kids I was with would have at least one person in their life who was happy. I failed most of the time because the reality was too painful. Now I work in a grocery store where smiling is considered job one and I still struggle with this goal. I consider myself to be a mostly positive person but outward displays of happiness have never been easy for me because I focus too much on fixing problems, which is inherently negative. I only allow myself the privilege of happiness after I have solved the problem.
I can trace this personality trait all the way back to my childhood and the hours I spent with my dad working at his printing business. My earliest recollection is this imperative he taught me from the very beginning, “Don’t ever make the same mistake twice.” He was adamant that only a fool would ever allow a problem to continue unabated and the person who was most responsible for fixing every problem was the one whose name was on the letterhead. There were many Saturdays when we went to work specifically to fix a mistake or solve a problem. We spent hours testing and making sure that the solution was the best practice and would work consistently from then on. Only then would he smile and say, “Let’s go by the Country Club Dairy and get a hot fudge sundae.” Then I had a great reason to smile and a huge sense of accomplishment for having been part of the winning team.
It has become painfully obvious to me now that I don’t smile that often because I see so many problems that need to be fixed and I feel like it’s my duty to do something about them. Smiling is the reward I get only after the problem has been solved and to do otherwise would be less than honest on my part. When people come to customer service, they can clearly see my name on the badge I wear and that makes me feel responsible. Unfortunately, there are far too many requests that are completely out of my control and I am left with an empty feeling.
Solving problems and helping people has always given meaning to my life but the older I get the more I realize the odds are against me in my quest. The world of today is a struggle for so many people and it saddens me to to see so many problems caused by a lack of kindness and commitment to making the world a better place. I meet elderly people who struggle with technology that makes every transaction a chore and young people who are great with technology but struggle with communication skills. I try to help them in any way I can but the speed at which I am asked to work means that my chances of giving them what they really need are almost nil. That is the curse of the modern world – unlimited opportunity with no time to take advantage of it all.
In the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, Cain questions the most important moral imperative of all time, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That thought is antithetical to everything I have ever known and I thank my parents for teaching me the most valuable lesson of all time, we are all our brother’s keepers. The quality of our lives is inextricably connected to the world at large and we are all responsible for making the world the best it can be for everyone. Selfishness and isolation have created more problems than any disease in history. We have to help each other and no one is exempt from this imperative.
Sometimes it is all I can do to smile through the pain but I know it helps. Every act of kindness brings me closer to humanity and to God. Happiness and fulfillment aren’t guaranteed for any of us but the opportunity to make a difference is endless. I still look forward to each new day and a hundred new problems to solve. I may not be smiling every minute of the day but my heart is in the right place and eventually I will get my reward when God smiles at me. I sincerely hope He does the same for all of you because you accepted His challenge to, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
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