To Serve and Not to Be Served

Having worked with the public myself for years before my children were born, I immediately felt empathetically defensive. I could imagine how distraught the tellers must have been, their unease at dealing with an emotional customer, and their desire to quickly move the man from their counter. One of the tellers finally finished what she was doing — after all, she couldn't just dump her uncounted money in the drawer and hope her estimate came out right at the end of the day — and politely assisted the man. I felt sorry for the tellers and immediately put on a more-than-friendly face in hope of alleviating their discomfort.

Having been a waitress during high school and mostly working retail during my 20s, I knew a lot about the kindness and cruelty of customers and how it affects your entire disposition and ultimately your well-being. My years at a drugstore almost destroyed my efforts in trying to practice Christian charity. I felt it more and more difficult to go to work each day and face over and over again the same troubled customers — each assuming he or she was the only one who had a broken product or a mistake on a receipt. Anyone in that environment, faced with repeated misery, negative reactions, and hostility, eventually develops a psychological defense towards it. Not to say that I am a doctor of this sort of thing, but my experience is that suffering the grumpiness of customers paralyzed my efforts in becoming a good and trusting person. I wanted to be generous toward people. I wanted to be a happy and fruitful Christian. I knew I had to get out.

After witnessing the ridicule of the tellers by the elderly man at the bank, I proceeded to my usual stroll through the market. The enticement of hundreds of products with their fancy designs and unrealistic descriptions made it all so appealing and self-absorbing. Forgetting my pre-written grocery list or the exact amount of money in the checking account, I became preoccupied with what I was doing and what I wanted. This same frame of mind may be the reason why customers fall into the sin against charity.

They are caught up in the act of buying, of thinking of their own need and not aware of what they are actually doing. How many times have you gone to the checkout only to hear in front of you a man or woman complaining rudely? Oddly though, this is the same person you just saw in the aisle, with smile on face and ease on brow, seemingly the most pleasant of persons. Now you see this person venting vicious anger, and hammering insults to the cashier for her “incompetence.”

When all groceries are packed in the trunk, I venture to the local coffee shop for a “treat.” Just the smell of the coffee is enough to fill your head with visions of Christmas sugar plums and fairies. Shifting the baby from one hip to the other and watching the other two children run circles around the door mat, I debate each coffee title: French Vanilla, Hazelnut, Irish Cream. When I finally reach the counter, the clerk appears stressed, perhaps over who-knows-what previous customers: secretaries getting 20 cups of coffee for their co-workers, each with a unique measure of sugar and/or cream (or without), carpenters working long hours on a cold roof, ordering up a large container of coffee “to go” along with an assortment of specific donuts. I think I will keep my order simple and give her a break.

This can be applied when visiting your favorite burger place. We've all seen the horrid customer who complains as soon as the waitress places the plate on the table. “Where is my mayonnaise?! Where is the salt?!” The waitress quickly runs, already fearing the mistake may have cost her a just tip. A lot of customers don't realize that many restaurants pay below minimum wage because they assume their servers are gaining the rest in tips. If we work at an office and mistakenly forget to order the staples, we would at most suffer a verbal reprimand by our boss, but we wouldn’t be penalized financially for our forgetfulness. Unfortunately those in service jobs do suffer such a fate and so do their families who are dependent on their low income.

The day was not spiritually useless. I learned a lot about myself, about other people and about how we should all consider the one standing behind the counter. The first shall be last and vice versa. In Jesus’ economy maybe the clerks are a step ahead of the customers. They are doing in their occupation, the one thing that Jesus asked of us all — to serve others, not to seek to be served.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Susan C. Stratton is a freelance writer, wife and mother in Maine. For 10 years, she ran Baby Bunny Memorial (, for parents who had lost a baby and is currently chairperson of the Corinna Chapter of Maine Right to Life and editor of The Maine Journal.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage