When People Stopped Being People
My sister has long said one of her favorite things about me is that I talk to the people behind the cash register at places with cash registers – grocery stores, department stores, restaurants, etc. After observing a five-minute exchange with a Kroger cashier called Barbara, my sister said to me, “They’re actual people to you. I love that you make them feel like people.” At the time, I was grateful for her kind observance and tucked it away into the “well done” compartment of my brain. (Insert a pat on the back, here.)
It wasn’t until a few years ago I realized her words were plaguing me. They haunted me every time I went anywhere with a cash register, to the point I’d go to stores where I could use a self-checkout station so I could avoid having to talk to anyone at all. What happens internally that takes a compliment and allows it become a throbbing pain in the side? At some point in a fancy job with international travel and an “important” schedule and nice paychecks and an attractive human beside me, I became too busy to bother with the person behind the cash register.
A seemingly small behavior pattern exposed an idol. I had taken a tree nearby, carved my own face into it, and put it up on my mantle to worship. Listen: when the perception of a schedule becomes more important than spending two minutes talking to the person behind a cash register, something’s wrong. When my internal thoughts excused me because I “didn’t have the time or energy” to listen to someone’s story behind the grandchild picture pinned proudly to her store vest, I was staking claim to own importance.
It’s not easy for me to type, because as I’m reliving it, I’m embarrassed by it. It gets worse though, because if I was avoiding speaking to people at the store, I certainly wasn’t making time for my friends, building community among fellow believers, serving, or making deliberate connections with my family members. The people behind the cash register may be a seemingly insignificant marker, but they reveal a telling, egocentric monologue. “What’s going to make me the most comfortable today? What’s going to satisfy my needs? What’s going to help me feel fulfilled?”
They say you can expose what you truly value by what you spend your money and time on. That’s a scary and necessary test, and I failed it. What it exposed in me were behaviors that spent my time, energy, money, and other resources on me, either directly or indirectly. Maybe you’re like me, and due to a Christian worldview, you place a high value on serving others. Right, so let’s talk about motives – if I spent a Saturday at a service project, or money on a present for my significant other, it was about how it would give me a return. If it would make me feel like I was checking off the “well done” compartment, I would do it. It became a sort of overcompensation for trying to balance out all I knew I was doing wrong. It’s deceitful that way – if I just leveraged my guilt into service or goodwill toward someone, I’d start to feel better about my sham of an existence… at least momentarily.
Who are you serving? What are you carving into the idol on your mantle? I’ve heard if you want to see where your idols are, consider your free time. Where does your brain go when you have nothing to do and nowhere to go and no cell service? What do you day dream about? That’s where the idols live. My answer was not Christ. Hard truth. So we start there. If it’s not Christ, it’s something or someone else and that’s not only bad for you, but also whatever (or whoever) you’re worshiping.
A few weeks after my person left, there were pictures posted on social media of my former person with a new person. That day I described to one of my dearest friends that up to that point I’d felt like I was dying from one million razor blade cuts all over my body – a slow bleed out. The day I saw those pictures it was like a pointed sword directly pierced my heart and ceased its beating. Sharp; painful; but decisive, and awfully revealing. One of my idols had been the relationship and one had been the person with whom I was in relationship. And both the relationship and the person had eaten my ability to treat people like people for lunch. They became all-encompassing, all-important, and all-consuming. They were out of place. The sword through the heart exposed that. The loss of a relationship shouldn’t be so earth-shaking. Painful, yes; but, relatively.
When people stop being people, pay attention. It’s small, and yet so incredibly telling as to where your heart is. Undoing that worship is a slow and arduous process, but something as simple as stopping to hold the door for someone is a promise of progress.
It’s always easier to deal with your own pain when you’re washing someone else’s blistered feet. When the last time you looked at the condition of someone else’s feet and reached for a bucket and cloth? I’ve read time and time again over the course of the last few years that darkness in a life drives greater empathy for others. My sense of empathy is higher than it’s ever been. Turn your sight outward and let people become people. Grab your bucket and cloth and watch your razor blade cuts close shut with new skin. Let your heart beat life that gives again, and be changed.
– N Ford