Updated: Aug 10, 2020
At the start of 2019, I find myself in the position of needing to increase my income level. In October, the company I work for reduced the hours of everyone with my job description, and that same month my daughter, who had been paying rent, moved out. So, as of this week, I have begun the process of revamping my resume and shopping it out. Job hunting, as most would agree, is not the gentlest experience in life. Perhaps that is why I have had the concept of kindness so much on my mind this week.
NOUN the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. synonyms: kindliness · kind-heartedness · warm-heartedness · tender-heartedness · goodwill · affectionateness · affection · warmth · gentleness · tenderness · concern · care · [more] a kind act. “it is a kindness I shall never forget” synonyms: kind act · good deed · act of kindness · good turn · favor · act of assistance · service · help · aid
When I was dating my now ex-husband, we once had a conversation where he suggested I might be ‘too nice’ to parent children. (Ha! I raised four of ’em). Although I never asked for clarification (something I’ve since learned is important to do), I understood him to mean I would not be able to discipline well, nor would I be able to stand up to protect them. Whether that was his actual message or not, I can’t say — and I no longer have any need to know — but I did carry his words with me for a long time. Although I have proven him wrong, I never forgot this conversation, and I pondered it at times as I went through life being ‘nice.’
For a long time, I despised the idea that I was ‘nice’ — it seems such a lukewarm, lame quality, the ultimate in blasé descriptors. At some point, though, I embraced the idea, because, quite frankly, I’m not actually always that nice (our little secret), and also I have observed that being nice, being kind, can so uplift a person. Living a life of demonstrated kindness, I have decided, is a beautiful way to live.
In 2010, I graduated from UBCO with a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. I’d been in a car accident which had extended my post-secondary education by a year, and over the span of that extra year, my city entered a recession. For six weeks I handed out resumes without so much as a call back, while watching my savings dwindle. Finally, I was hired at Perkins Family Restaurant, where I would work for the next seven years of my life.
I still remember that first shift, standing in the kitchen pass through rolling napkins around cutlery and feeling both deja vu and a shell-shocked, disbelief-ridden kind of despair. How was it possible that after seven years of post-secondary education, I found myself back in the restaurant industry?
And not even back in the industry, but in a family restaurant. My pre-childbirth resume had waitressing experience, but the company names I’d worked for in my twenties were significantly more upscale.
I hated where I’d landed, and I blamed my ex (because, you know, it’s not kosher to blame the kids and not fun blaming your own lack of foresight), and those feelings showed up in the service I gave. Well, okay, maybe not to the customer’s face — I have been gifted with my parent’s dimples and I learned early in life that my smile can hide a multitude of sins — but back in the kitchen with the other servers? I bitched. That’s the truth of it.
I didn’t approach my work as anything more than a way to pay the bills. What I did, I did for the tips. I learned quickly to flirt with the children and the older men, to admire tattoos and hair styles and manicures, even if I was lying through my teeth on all accounts. Waitressing (allow me to enlighten any of you who have never done it) can be the highest form of insincerity; waitressing makes insincerity an art form.
While working at the restaurant, three things happened which changed me. One day while I was not at work, I engaged in a conversation with a woman for whom I have great respect. I was describing for her all the ways in which I hated my job. To my surprise, she told me she had also waitressed, and it had been one of her favourite jobs because she made it a personal challenge to make the crankiest of customers smile. Huh.
I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. What if, instead of ranting in the dish pit whenever someone rubbed me the wrong way, I reframed the interaction, turned defeating unhappiness into my own personal mission? What if, instead of checking what each table tipped, I refused to let myself check my tip tally until day’s end, eliminating payment from my immediate motivations when offering thoughtful care to my guests?
One afternoon, I served lunch to a group of ten businessmen. The check came to roughly $150, and when it was time to deliver it, the man with the Visa card asked me what he should tip.
“I can’t answer that for you,” I replied. “Most people tip around fifteen percent.”
“Is that all you think you are worth?” He asked, laughing, so I jived off his mood.
“Oh! What I’m worth? I’m worth one hundred percent!”
The table laughed, and I left then returned later to retrieve his signed credit slip. When I looked at my tip, I was floored to see he had matched the bill — he had left me a one hundred percent tip. I took the paper to my manager.
“Um,” I said, “Maybe you should go double check that this isn’t a mistake?” Instead, she instructed me to go clarify. I went back to the table.
“Sir,” I said, “I just wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a mistake. I mean, it’s incredibly generous if it’s not, but was this what you meant to do?”
Taking the bill from my hand, he glanced at it and huffed.
“I’ve never had anyone come back asking for more before,” he teased, and wrote a new number on the line which read Tip Amount.
“Oh,” I protested, “I wasn’t. I’m not.” But he just laughed, and handed me back the slip. He had increased my tip by another fifty percent.
He repeated this the next day with another server, and I’m sure he knew his kindness was appreciated. What he will never know, though, is that on that day, I had exactly fourty-three cents in my bank account. His generosity fed my family that week.
On yet another day, my stress level was unusually high due to some personal issues in the family. My mind was not on the job, and my service was deplorable. People are supposed to leave their personal issues at the door when they come to work, but I hadn’t managed this well, and after repeatedly getting orders wrong and forgetting to fill customer requests such as extra coffee and water refills, one of my tables had enough. First, they (quite rightly) expressed their frustration, but I was not in a place to hear it, and so the lady at the table put her hand on my arm to restrain me, in order that she could continue to express her displeasure. I lost it.
I wrenched my arm free, and started screaming at her that she didn’t know what was going on in my life, and I was a person, and I had problems, too. Stunning her and embarrassing myself with the scene I had created, I fled to the receiving bay. There, trying to still the adrenaline coursing through my body, I found my boss on a smoke break.
“I just yelled at a customer,” I confessed to my very startled boss, who left immediately, to calm the waters I had frothed up. As I recall it, she even got someone else to finish serving their table, although the moment my nerves stopped vibrating, I felt appropriately ashamed of myself. I stumbled through the rest of my shift, then went straight from there to hospital, where one of my family members was recovering from a serious injury.
The next day, somewhat calmer, I was again at work when my boss came looking to find me.
“There’s someone here to see you,” she said.
I walked out to the lobby of our restaurant, and there stood the couple from the previous day. Immediately embarrassed, I prepared to sincerely apologize, but that was not why they were there. Instead, the woman held out a bouquet of flowers, offering them to me.
“We were worried about you,” she said to me. “We wanted to let you know someone cares.”
I cried then, and I am crying now, writing this. I remember feeling actual horror that this woman had brought me these flowers when I had behaved so inappropriately. I stumbled through a very inarticulate apology and expression of gratitude, and I accepted the hug she gave me. Then I fled back to the receiving bay, and bawled off all my makeup. I have never forgotten the completely unmerited kindness she offered me that day, or the impact it had on me at that time. Instead, I have tried to emulate it, even if only in a smile, or a kind word, an offered compliment, or patience when patience is not necessarily due.
I also choked up when, before writing this, I read that the semi-trailer driver involved in the Humboldt bus crash incident of 2018 has pled guilty to dangerous driving causing death. That wasn’t the part of the story that got me, though. What hit me was the statement his lawyer made on his behalf:
“His position to me was, ‘I just want to plead guilty,'” said lawyer Mark Brayford. “Mr. Sidhu advised me, ‘I don’t want to make things any worse.'” The lawyer went on, stating that Sidhu is devastated by the grief he’s caused the families. “He’s overwhelmed by the expressions of sympathy and kindness that some of the families and players have expressed to him, in spite of the fact that their grief is entirely his fault.”
I’m not certain what strength it must take to offer comfort to one who has brought grievous injury in your life or the life of your loved ones. I do know, kindness often happens when we need it most, and deserve it least.
Over the course of my life, I have often experienced random acts of kindness from strangers, some large, others small. Once, knowing I was a single parent, a customer at the restaurant played Secret Santa, and bought Christmas presents for my children and I. Another time, coming up short at the till in the grocery store, the woman behind me handed over the change to cover the rest. I have arrived at the drive-thru window of coffee shops only to learn the previous driver has paid for my order, and last year the man who helped me finance my car decided to forgive the rest of my payments. Some of these people have attributed their actions to God, others merely wish to ‘pay-it-forward.’ Either way, the effect of their actions has without fail been to improve my mood, my day, and sometimes even my life.
This week, a guest at the art gallery where I work surprised me when she brought me an Italian roast coffee (from GioBean — so good!). That same day, I stopped for groceries and a lady knocked on my car door. She apologized for startling me, then told me she was a florist who had Christmas flowers left over which she couldn’t sell, so she was giving them away. Would I like some? I was thrilled to take home a bouquet — vase and all. (Lake Country Florists — shop there, everybody!)
I love the flowers, but even more, I love knowing that in a world where misery and greed and fear-mongering too often seem to be the special of the day, there are people who choose to live kindly, in acts both large and small.
At the restaurant, I did become a server known for sincerely caring for her customers. With regulars, I had their orders memorized, and knew to pick up where last left off on inquiries about the stories of their lives. With grieving clientele, I learned to bite back my own tears and to take the time to sit a moment and hold a hand when an elderly patron cried while speaking of the death of a loved spouse. Once, with the restaurant closed, I sat with a homeless man and played him a song on my guitar while the day old buns and expired apple pie were packed away for him to eat. He told me that his father ran an addiction treatment facility, but he stayed away, living on the street, because he felt he was an embarrassment. He broke my heart a little when he thanked me, humbly and in sincerity, for treating him like a person.
It takes very little to offer acts of kindness, but these tiny moments can be profound and significant for both recipient and giver. Such an outlook elevates us as individuals and as a society. Kind is not blasé, it is powerful. It is how I aim to live.