When I was young, my dad regularly mortified me at restaurants throughout the Midwest. We’d be at Hardee’s, say. And he insisted in calling the waitress—there behind the counter, awaiting my straightforward order for a chili dog—by the name on her plastic nametag. As if she were another old friend, of which he had innumerable others not just in our small town, but a substantial radius around it. She would inevitably smile beneath that brown visor. At twelve, I simply wanted to crawl beneath a Formica table next to the French fry fragments and Rorschach blots of dried ketchup and wait out my dad’s exuberant friendliness.
Nowadays–you saw this one coming: I’m the one using the Starbucks barista’s name.
Maybe my dad primed me for one of my perennial takeaways from Africa: greeting everyone, even before you, say, ask where the olives are at the supermarket. There’s even a greeting, I learned, for people you pass on the road. (When I use it, yes—I’m the one now drawing a grin from a stranger. All they need is a visor. Or a nametag.)
An African friend explained that she believes it even prevents crime. When you make a relational contact with someone, even briefly, it simply…humanizes them. As in a quote I read long ago, hatred ends when you can see yourself in the eyes of another.
I am reminded of this in the words of the communal prayer, Brother, I greet the Christ in you. And this is what I’m chewing on today: how, in an increasingly automated world, we can acknowledge God’s image in people around us in simple ways.
My home culture is full of delightful doodads like ATM’s and self-checkouts. But as efficiency rises in importance—uh, a quality falling admittedly below my expectations in Africa—the relational element shrinks, out of necessity. People can become means to an end, not unlike machines. When they don’t produce in the expected manner and timeframe, there’s more opportunity for irritation.
Once, sitting at Arby’s and admittedly shoveling people into what I deemed their appropriate mental categories, I was convicted by a quote of C.S. Lewis:
The dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare… It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. (The Weight of Glory, 1949, emphasis added)
Obviously there’s a place for us to be task-oriented. But today, just in case you’re not the use-the-waitress’-name type: A few practical ideas to preserve the human in the imago Dei around us.
Someone once gave me good, simple advice about panhandlers: look them in the eyes, even if you don’t plan to give. When someone’s in pain, I can find myself in the mental equivalent of rolling up my windows and locking my doors—not just in self-protection, but simply because I don’t know what to do. Taking any form of responsibility is simply overwhelming. One of my takeaways from the Good Samaritan: He didn’t step around the guy in front of him. In Isaiah 58, God pleads, Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen…not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? No, I’m not suggesting we be the savior of the world. Africa, for one, is overwhelming if every problem is mine. In a sea of broken people, I try to see what fits within 1 Peter 5: Shepherd the flock of God that is among you. Who’s among me? Let’s start there.
See people for their stories rather than their role toward us.
Remember the impossibility that your kindergarten teacher actually went home and had a life outside of your elementary school? From the checker in Wal-Mart to the janitor at the mall, we empower people when we imagine and honor the context they’re coming from. A friend once wisely counseled me to see my mom not just as my mom, but as a woman. Somehow, this clicked in me. What are her hopes and desires outside of what I want, outside of her and I?
See people for more than their labels—and let them wiggle outside of the labels we’ve stuck on.
Labels can either be tools to understand or tools to maintain distance, right? From personality tests, to race and culture, to besetting sins—labels are only helpful so far as they help us to more accurately comprehend and compassionately respond. Be consistently hungry for stereotype-busters, even within the labels people use to define themselves.
This was advice given to my husband and I before we were married: In an argument, try to hear what the person’s saying rather than how they’re saying it. Ever been in a disagreement with someone who was kind enough to hear the real questions you were asking, rather than just the (irritated, misspoken, inflamed) way you actually said it? It’s a game-changer.
Call rather than text or email. Visit rather than call.
Presence matters! God’s Word became flesh and lived among us. Take time to relate with an extra degree of face-to-face time. This is especially with potentially negative information.
Respect their “no’s”.
If people are more than what they do for us, we can receive and cheer on their reasonably healthy boundaries, even if we don’t understand them. Without being overbearing, I can even dignify people and their own needs by encouraging them to set boundaries despite what I want. For us here in Africa, this meant that we declined offers for people to work at our home on Sundays, even if it meant a level of inconvenience for us. (Some of our African friends find it hard to take a Sabbath, because it’s a chance to earn much-needed money.) As Peter Scazzero suggests in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, it’s all too easy to become “human doings” rather than “human beings.” Communicate dignity by celebrating boundaries in others—and even yourself.
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