Work the crowd

I’m hiding behind my red stapler. It sits on my cool little Pier 1 desk, next to my Tiffany lamp, which stands watch over my Mac computer. I have my stuff, in my little office, in my cozy home, in my safe neighborhood in the richest country in the world. 

Yet my heart breaks almost every day. At least on the days when I - usually accidentally through a Facebook post, a Tweet, or by overhearing other people talking -  become aware of the latest human atrocity. People “over there” in the Middle East getting beheaded. A little boy “down there somewhere” in Pennsylvania tortured and killed by his parents, victims of Ebola “waaaaay over there” in Africa dying in the streets as they wait in line to get into the hospital for treatment. 

Some of the tragedies are closer, too. Too close for my comfort. A friend who’s been battling cancer for 30 years gets the news that this time there is nothing they can do for her, my mother who feels trapped in a body that won't obey her and is held hostage by a mind that she can't trust. And some suffering is uniquely mine, abiding with me as I live my life, the ramifications of my bad decisions and wrong choices.

I get so frustrated because I want to contribute to making the world a gentler place for myself and others, but I am paralyzed by my impotence. Nothing I can do with the resources I have is going to affect any of it. What would I do? Go to Africa and administer medicine? Restore my mother's memory? Go back in my time machine and do things over again? Heal my friend? Make ISIS stop? 

So I retreat into my little space, tucked safely away in my office with my red Swingline stapler (Yes, just like the one from Office Space) and my ceramic coffee mug and I pull my small life closer around me, as though it might shield me, or absorb the cries of the broken hearts, the broken bodies, the broken spirits that share this broken world with me. 

Do you ever feel the broken-heartedness of the world? If you're anything like me, you turn the TV off because you can’t stand to hear one more report of a bombing or a shooting, or you flip the newspaper immediately to the LifeStyle section because you just can’t read another headline about world affairs. Are you ever afraid to get on Facebook because you know there will be yet another story about a child dying from cancer or another celebrity succumbing to drug addiction or depression? Or maybe you are one of those people who grieves for lost souls and every post, news story, and viral video reminds you of how spiritually bankrupt we are. And you ache.

Hate, indifference, and suffering in the world overwhelm me, make me feel helpless and defeated by how short my reach is. 

But maybe having a short reach is just what God intended.

The other day I met a woman who was driving a blue Infinity. “Met” is not really the right word, I suppose. I saw her, on the road, on my way home from the gym. I was traveling down a busy four-lane road in the passing lane behind two school buses that were definitely not passing anyone... and they obviously stood between the woman in the blue Infinity and her destination. 

The Infinity buzzed up next to me in the right hand lane and, finding her way impeded by a slower moving car there, the driver zipped over in front of me, squeezing herself into the space between me and a school bus. 

“Are you crazy?” I called out. (To myself.) Then I found myself entertaining ideas about how to block her attempts at weaving and passing, since she was putting all of us danger with her reckless driving. (That’s always a good idea - find someone who is rushing on the road and then intentionally frustrate them.) “You’re going to get someone killed!”

I didn't see it initially, but the woman driving that car was suffering. It wasn’t third-world-political-strife-oppression-disease kind of suffering, but clearly she was worried about being late for something. Maybe her child was sick and she had to wait for a babysitter because her daycare center has a policy about children with fevers, and maybe that made her late for work and she had a big presentation to give at an early meeting. Or maybe her elderly mother lives alone and she called to say she had fallen and she was rushing to be at her side. Perhaps it was nothing more than a frenzied shopping trip to get started on “holiday gift giving.” (If you think that’s not a form of suffering, check out the mall the day after Thanksgiving.)

Whatever the reason was, I almost came bumper-to-bumper with another person who was not at peace and the best I could do was insult her and practically wish disaster for her. 

What happened to all that compassion? Where was my bleeding heart now? Was I only willing to recognize the pain of faraway people in far-off lands? Was I only interested in wishing I could do something about things over which I have no control and therefore no real obligation? Was I only willing to care about people who, by sheer virtue of distance and futility, required no more of an investment from me than the energy it takes to shake my head, tsk-tsk in pity, and lament my helplessness? 

When Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” what was he modeling? For starters, he displayed love to those whose paths he crossed, the people who literally brushed up against him. He was always working the crowds. He offered them grace and forgiveness wherever and whenever he encountered them. Jesus didn't go looking for opportunities to love; he didn’t have to. He knew that he was surrounded by them. 

I slowed down, backed off, and let the woman in the Infinity have her space (and don’t think the brand name of her car escaped me.). As she sped away, I offered up a prayer for her. I asked God to protect her and keep her and the other people on the road safe. I asked him to heal whatever it was in her life that was causing her such anxiety, and whatever it was in me that was making me blind to the fact that she was one of my "one anothers." Then I turned left down my street and headed for home. 

The truth is that we can’t do anything about ISIS or Ebola or the political wars that rage all around us. We can’t do anything about the flooding in Italy or the vicious snow storm in Buffalo. We can't save our friends from cancer or divorce and we can't protect our parents from death or push the rewind button on our lives. But every minute of every day that we are out in the world, we are brushing up against the crowds, just as Jesus did. We can offer love, forgiveness, and healing - right here, right now. No matter where we are, we can reach out and do something for somebody. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Smile at a co-worker. Extra points if you don’t like him.
  • Set up the new pot of coffee in the break room. Even if you do it every time. 
  • Be patient with that woman in the next cube who rubs you the wrong way. Bring her a muffin.
  • Don’t let a call from that irritating client go to voice mail.
  • Don’t take the last one today. Leave it for someone else.
  • See that guy stuck in the next lane with his blinker on? Let him get in front of you. 
  • See that lady in line at the grocery store with a crying child? Let her get in front of you. 
  • How about that friend who is feeling alone and alienated from someone she loves? Get behind her. Take her to coffee.
  • Hold a door open.
  • Unload the dishwasher.
  • Unload a grudge.
  • Say “Thank you,” and “Have a nice day.”
Instead of barricading ourselves behind our stuff, hiding in our comfortable lives, and telling ourselves that we would surely make the world a better place if only we had more money or power or faith, let's try taking a step out into the crowd, reaching out our hand, and loving whoever happens to be at our fingertips. 

Can you imagine if everyone worked the crowd? I'll bet you my red Swingline stapler it would change the world.