Empathy – a Different Spin in the Context of COVID-19 (Charlie McNeil)

I had an interesting and instructive object lesson in empathy in this time of COVID-19.

The congregation received a parcel card in the mail.  We were told that we could pick up the parcel the next day from the auxiliary postal outlet in town.  So I put the parcel card in my pocket, and went about my business.

The next day I went over to the postal outlet to pick up the parcel.  I arrived at the postal desk, and no one was there.  So I rang the bell once as I was instructed to by the posted instructions.

Then I waited.  It wasn’t a long wait, nor was I in a hurry.  For a change I didn’t get impatient.

Out from the stock room door came one of the employees. The employee had a trolley with a number of bulky items on it.  I noted the person’s body language which seemed to indicate that he was having a bad day! The way he dumped the trolley confirmed that.  Clearly he was having a bad day!

When he arrived behind the counter, he asked me in a rather brusque manner what I wanted?  I handed him the card and indicated that I was there to pick up a parcel.  He scanned the parcel and then asked for identification.

I showed him my driver’s licence through the clear plastic screen.  He looked at it and then at the parcel card.  I was going to put my licence away when I was again asked to see it.

I thought I was being helpful by reaching around the plastic barrier and showing my licence a bit closer.  Seems I was dreadfully wrong!  In no uncertain terms and rather rudely it was indicated that I needn’t have shoved my licence into his face!

“Sorry,” was my outer reaction.  I won’t share my internal one!

He then indicated that the address on the parcel card and my address on my licence didn’t line up.  I told him that that was probably because the address on the parcel card was the church and as minister, I didn’t live there but had my own home address.

He nodded and then went looking for the parcel.  Eventually with some help from a co-worker the package was found and handed over.  I thanked the employee and went about my business.

I was a bit perturbed by the treatment and was tempted to speak to the manager about the rudeness!  Then I thought – why was the employee having a bad day?  Did some previous customer give him a hard time?  Did a supervisor chew him out for something that wasn’t his fault? Were the precautions for COVID-19 getting to him and having to deal with those not wearing masks etc?

Truth be told I have no idea and don’t need to!  It’s none of my business!  Except to say that maybe just maybe I can cut the guy some slack.  Everyone has a bad day and deals badly with their bad days sometimes.  These days it may well be all the more so!

Have you ever done so?  Have I?  Sad to say for me I have acted badly on bad days.

I also thought about three of our family members who work in retail, and some of the stories they’ve told about dealing with the public.  I have witnessed their professionalism and people smarts.  They have taught me a thing or two!

One gospel segue speaks to this.  In his public ministry Jesus taught about turning the other cheek.  This teaching was a conscious, and deliberate way of taking the sting out of a bad situation.  It also gave alternatives to the usual human reactions. Bad situations can all too easily escalate.  When they do no one is the winner.  In fact, everyone loses.

I came away from that incident the other day realizing that empathy is a gift to others but also to ourselves. Instead of carrying around a lot of angst, through empathy we let it go.  Instead of complaining we reflect on life lessons.  Instead of continuing the spiral of vexation we create spirals of love, understanding, and grace!

Good gifts to share with others as well as ourselves.  It can make all the difference!  Especially as we navigate through these days!

Blessings for the journey!
(Rev.) Charlie McNeil
Knox Presbyterian Church, Lloydminster