Tuesday, July 06, 2010

My New Hero

I don't even know my new hero's name. She isn't a famous movie star or a politician. Actually, I’ve only met my hero once, serving coffee at the Second Cup where she works.

But she's my hero anyway, because like all heroes, this big hearted barista had a mission: to put a smile on everyone's face. I had run into her cafe hurried and stressed, looking for a quick caffeine fix between meetings; and to be honest, like most other customers, I was a lot less congenial than I should have been. Yet this woman accepted my order gracefully, and with just a few kind words managed to make me smile. This hero had made a difference in my day; and she certainly makes a daily difference in the lives of her customers as well.

Now, calling this cheerful coffee salesclerk a “hero” might seem like a gross exaggeration to you; but I am dead serious about what I’m saying. Yes, I’m sure you agree with the Mishna in Pirkei Avot that we should greet people with a pleasant face; after all, that’s how our mothers raised us. But frankly, there’s a lot more than manners at stake here.

Smiles are in short supply nowadays. People are far more busy and stressed than they were fifty years ago. (Why that is is a topic for another time). Socially, we are cut off from everyone except for those who are closest to us. True “neighbourhoods”, where people actually know their neighbours, no longer exist. Even in the suburbs, people are unable to name most of their neighbours; people may live next door to each other, but they aren’t next door neighbours. We have retreated into well insulated cocoons, entertained by the flickering screens of the electronic age, communicating virtually with virtually everyone, but truly knowing virtually no one. True community spirit, with a sense of being connected to those who surround us, has disappeared nearly everywhere.

Along with the collapse of community has come the collapse of civility. There’s simply no time to say hello; after all, we have to get down to business. People chatter away on cellphones while standing on line, and the polite banter of strangers only occurs when two people are simultaneously between calls. E-mail is even worse; the linguistic structure of e-mail has the ambience of firefighters shouting to each other during a four alarm fire. Greetings, even first names, are omitted, leaving only a blunt request, sometimes delivered in caps, demanding of us to “CALL JIM NOW”. Frankly, we are stretching the social fabric a bit too thin, and we are witnessing an epidemic of grumpiness.

And grumpiness makes a difference. I remember being stunned when a former Member of Parliament, discussing his life in politics, told me that at times legislation, even the course of governments, are deeply affected by the moods of the leaders. A Prime Minister arrives one morning in foul mood because he had a fight with his wife, and all of a sudden, initiatives are upended, ministers are demoted. Grumpiness is not just a mood; it can change history. And much like the famed “butterfly effect”, (that a butterfly flapping its wings can change to course of the weather) a simple lack of civility can have far reaching consequences as well.

And that’s why this barista is my hero. By putting a smile on the faces of her customers, she has pushed back against the impolite and impersonal. And with her cheerful countenance, she has made difference; after all, even one smile can create a hurricane of kindness.

No comments: