Service and Strangers
“I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you clothed me,
I was sick and you visited me,
I was in prison and you came to me…
As you did it to one of the least… you did it to me.”
-Matthew 25: 35-40
One of the hazards of old age, I have found, is that one becomes familiar with the workings of numerous medical offices and institutions. I see five specialists, plus my primary care doc. A humbling reality. And an inconvenient one. I have filled out the same medical history sheet numerous times. The identical privacy warnings. The waiting times. The copays. I have resources and they don’t scare me, but I understand that for most people these outlays mean they’ll have to do without something this month. The ancillary staff.
By now all of the people who help my docs know me. We get along just fine. Some of them have been my patients, or know someone who gets treated in my office. Then I get the “special” smiles and the expedited service, which makes me very uncomfortable. On the occasions that I’ve been to unfamiliar offices, however, my experience has not always been ideal.
At office #1 the receptionist handed me a clipboard with a small stack of papers.
“Sit down and fill these out. Come back when you’re done.”
No eye contact. No smile. A sharp, drill sergeant voice. No “please.”
At office #2 the young woman at the front desk was wearing a plain white T shirt. A large ring dangling from one of her eyes. Two neck tattoos. Exactly the same orders that I received in office #1, in the same tone of voice. While she was chewing gum.
Office #3 had the hated glass window that separated the privileged employee area from the needy masses in the waiting room. I stood in front of the window for a minute. I could clearly see the shadows of two people on the other side. I’m sure that they could see me. They made no effort to open the window. I tapped on it.
A very annoyed young woman angrily slid the window.
“What do you want?” she said.
Office #4 was the clincher. Wide open reception area, just as I like it. Clear vision of everyone on the inside. I headed toward a woman who was sitting in front of her computer, typing away. I stood in front of her. For close to a minute. She made no effort to look up from the keyboard.
I leaned over the desk. Far over. As close to her face as I could get.
Do you know who pays for your salary?
She looks at me; obviously startled and at a loss for words. I don’t wait for her answer.
I do. If I decide not to come to this office, you don’t get paid.
I get more of a puzzled look.
Not only that, but your boss is my patient. I’m Dr. Garriga.
Now a very sheepish grin.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Exactly. You don’t know. So shouldn’t everyone get the courteous treatment?
She began to mutter something, but I walked away from her.
I confronted all of the people I mentioned above. In a nice way. I asked if they were in a bad mood, or reminded them that new patients are scared, and intimidated, and worried. In each instance I got a half- hearted apology, followed by prompt and royal treatment.
What’s wrong with people? Why is it so difficult to smile? I have no doubt in my mind that the same people who were rude to me go to church once a week and listen to scriptures similar to the one above. Don’t they know that they’re supposed to follow what they preach?
Many grateful patients come to our office. They bring candy, or jokes (some of them a bit bawdy), or cheerful stories about their loved ones. All of them get treated as if they were special to us.
I never cease to tell my staff that this is the easy part. That we get no Brownie points for being nice and courteous to those who treat us well. Where we get the green stamps (now I’m dating myself) is when we serve the gruff, ungrateful, always picky crowd. I have stringent rules: all of these people get treated like royalty.
Because we don’t know.
It’s not that I’m worried that one of these challenging folk may be someone famous. Or an undercover reporter. I don’t care.
Maybe they’re scared and alone. Maybe their brain is not wired right. Maybe they’re being abused at home.
Again, I don’t care.
It’s just that at the end of the day you have to go home, and you want to have it very clear in your mind that today you did God’s work to the best of your ability. Not 95% of the time. All of the time.
It makes life much simpler. You get peace of mind. You can sleep.
So please. Pay it forward. When you’re driving yield to someone who needs to get in front of you. When you go to the store say “please” and “thank you.” Most supremely important: every minute, every second, act as if you love the people you love. Yes, they will love you no matter how you behave, but why not be nice to them all the time? Is there some form of wicked pleasure derived from being mean or snappy?
As you did to one of the least…