I started working in the food industry when I was just twelve years old.
I couldn’t drive, stay out past 11:00pm, or do algebra, but I could easily fill a bag with bagels at a business owned by a close family friend. And so I did, every weekend.
It was a simple job, working the dozen counter. I didn’t even have to ask people how many they wanted (thirteen, a baker’s dozen—that’s just good business!) I only had to ask what kind they wanted, then hand it to them, make change, and send them off with a “Have a nice day!”
I tried, as often as I could, to stay neatly tucked behind the register, but every now and then someone asked me to help with something unrelated to my one responsibility.
I knew it would reflect poorly on the business—and would erode my self-esteem—if I responded to those requests with, “I don’t know how to do that—I’m just a kid,” so I often tried to do things I’d never been trained to do. Like make coffee.
Sounds easy, right? It should have been. Except I didn’t know the commercial coffee maker wouldn’t light up after I hit the “twelve cups” button, to register that it was, in fact, brewing. So I hit that button five times, flooding the coffee island in the middle of the restaurant.
I remember the angry looks on customers’ faces, and I remember feeling both embarrassed and bad about myself. I’d failed at a simple job, and people weren’t happy with me.
That kind of thing happened a lot, and not just when I worked at the bagel shop.
A couple years later I worked with a few friends at a dinner theater fundraiser for my community theater group.
We all wanted to raise money to do Grease, and we thought serving would be good practice for adulthood, when we’d likely wait tables between endless rejections (at least, that’s what I thought). So we were eager to work the event.
Even though there wasn’t a coffee maker in sight (I didn’t have to go too deep into the kitchen) once again things went less than smoothly.
Since the cooks were amateurs too, it took a while to get all the food prepared and plated. As table by table received their heaping piles of pasta, the patrons in my section appeared to get a little antsy. So I worried, once again, that they were annoyed and angry with me.
When their food was finally ready, I loaded it all onto one massive tray so no one would have to wait a second longer for their saucy carbs, and then hoisted the tray above my head.
I made it just a few feet shy of the table before it all came crashing down. On me.
I’m not sure if it was the sight of me fighting back tears or the knowledge that I was only fourteen, but the patrons didn’t act annoyed. In fact, they got up and helped me clean the mess.
I was amazed that they weren’t infuriated, especially knowing they’d have to wait even longer to eat. They were patient, kind, and giving, as I learned at the end of the night when a man slipped a twenty in my hand and said, “You did a good job—thanks!”
He was lying, I knew, as I cleaned sauce out of my hair, but it didn’t matter. These people didn’t focus on what I’d done wrong. They saw how I’d struggled and they chose to respond with understanding and compassion.
In doing so, they helped me show myself understanding and compassion—yet one more thing I haven’t always done well.
I’ve reflected on this experience many times over the years when I’ve encountered servers or workers in other businesses who’ve done less than stellar jobs, and I’ve tried to show them the same kindness a group of strangers once showed me.
They may not all be minors with tears in their eyes and spaghetti in their hair, but they are, no doubt, hard working people who are carrying a lot around—and I don’t just mean their trays.
They all have struggles, and dreams, and goals, and responsibilities, and they too could benefit from someone showing them patience, kindness, and understanding if they’re a little slow or less than friendly.
I’m not saying it’s not reasonable to expect good service, just that the world is a better place when we see people beyond their nametags, and visualize everyone as a kid who truly is doing their best.
As you may have seen on the site or Tiny Buddha’s social media pages, I recently wrote a book titled Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges (on sale October 6th), with the help of seventy Tiny Buddha contributors, that shares numerous stories just like this.
Reading through these stories reminded me how similar we all really are.
We’re all a little scared and a little rough around the edges.
We’re all looking for love, support, acceptance, and appreciation.
And we can all get and give these things every day, one tiny act at a time.
I’ve seen the power of tiny acts of kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance countless times in my own life, and as the title suggests, I’ve created 365 of these small acts that we can all do, including this one from the seventh month:
Be patient and understanding with people who serve you, especially if they have a lot of customers to tend to.
It may seem like a tiny thing, but sometimes the tiny things are the big things.
Empathizing instead of criticizing is a big thing. Getting up to help instead of sitting back and judging is a big thing.
And it’s big things like these that help us all feel seen, appreciated, and loved—and far happier for it.
Kindness quote image via Shutterstock (attribution: Aesop)