Saturday afternoon, I cheated.
Well, OK. What I mean is that I cheated on my self-imposed low-carb diet and got a ham, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich at a local joint. With bread. English muffin, to be exact.
It was snowing like gangbusters, and my feet were wet and cold. So sue me if I wanted something warm and salty — and crunchy. I definitely craved the crunch.
I know. I was weak. You may sneer and/or jeer at will.
I’d placed my order (which included a hot decaf peppermint-mocha with milk) and had moved to the far end of the counter to wait. From where I was standing, I could see through a rectangular window-like opening into the kitchen area, where an earnest young guy was making my salty-crunchy indulgence.
He plucked a couple of plastic gloves from a nearby box. One, he wadding into the palm of his left hand, holding it in place with his ring finger and pinky. With the remaining two fingers and thumb, he attempted to pull the other glove down over his right hand. His brow furrowed with the effort, swiping fingers over the entirety of the glove repeated until, after much ado, he was finally able to get it in place.
With his now-covered right hand he moved to uncrumple the remaining glove, which had been wadded up in his left hand the whole time. He fumbled it and the glove spiraled downward to land on the floor.
The greasy, filthy, wet floor.
Hey, it was already covered in hand sweat and germs. Why not add to the cocktail, right?
He bent down and retrieved the glove, shaking it a couple of times before managing to don it —
— and then proceeded to handle my food.
Suddenly, “salty-crunchy” was seeming a lot more like … “scuzzy-grungy.”
The thing is, I really believe the kid meant to do a good job. He’d been very polite, more nervous and flustered than anything.
I could almost hear his mental dialog:
Oh, crap! That line’s getting long out there. Why aren’t these gloves going on? Stop shaking! The manager says we have to wear gloves each and every time we make food, and I don’t want to get in trouble. Plus, I know all those customers can see me. Have no fear, folks! I’m puttin’ it on … got it right here, see? … just need to get this #@&*% thing … *ugh* FINALLY! Thank God … *deep breath* … OK, now what’d I do with that Canadian bacon?
By hook or by crook, he got those gosh-darned gloves on like he was told. So as far as he was concerned, all was well and pass the cheese.
I was curious to know what he might have said if anyone had asked, “But why are you required to wear gloves when you handle food products?” I honestly wondered if he thought the reason had something to do with keeping his own hands from being contaminated — rather than realizing that his hands were the contaminant. And so when the one glove landed on the floor, was he thinking, Meh, whatever. It’s so busy right now, and I don’t think the inside of the glove touched anything gross, so I should be safe.
The bell dinged and another worker plopped my bag onto the counter top. I thanked them, took my food and left without making a scene. I figured, Hey, I’ve been served plenty of things the world over that I’ve still never managed to identify, and some in conditions that would make a cockroach quail. It won’t kill me to eat this sandwich.
Now, before we set about wagging our heads or fingers too vehemently in this young man’s direction, let’s consider how often we ourselves lose track of why we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing, even while continuing to do it.
Later the same afternoon, I was dashing through the snow to pick up a prescription that was waiting for me at the pharmacy. By the time I’d parked, the lot was already covered in inches of sodden slush. As soon as I opened the car door, I heard the familiar ding-a-ling-a-ling coming from the direction of the store entrance.
Standing beside the red Salvation Army kettle, a young woman jangled the bell, hunching her shoulders and blinking against the wind-whipped sleet. She caught my eye as I approached.
“Hello,” I called over. “I’ll grab some money inside and catch you on the way out.”
Something about the shape of her weary smile made it obvious that she’d heard versions of that promise too many times — words spoken with no intent to follow through. “Thank you. Merry Christmas,” she replied, stuffing her other hand deeper into her coat pocket.
Twenty minutes later, I emerged.
I slid a sidelong glance in the ringer’s direction. “I forgot,” I apologized with a sheepish grin.
“That’s OK,” she said, “Merry Christmas.”
“I’ll be right back …” I replied, sloshing back toward my car.
Once there, I quickly snatched a plastic bag full of change out from the hinged center armrest and jogged back to the woman, dumping the small heap of coins over the opening in the collection pot and shuffling them around until they’d all gone through.
“Thank you so much,” the attendant repeated. “Merry Christmas.”
As I made the slow drive home over winding and unplowed roads, I thought back to the kid with the dirty gloves who seemed to have lost track of his why. And I found myself considering the interaction I’d just had with the Salvation Army worker. Why had I given that bag of change?
So I thought about it.
Some might give because they believe in the mission and goals of the Salvation Army.
Some might give out a vague sense of helping the poor, because it makes them feel like a good person.
Some may get a sense of holiday spirit at a time of giving and generosity.
Some certainly give out of awkwardness or pressure or guilt.
For some, it might simply be tradition — something they’ve done year after year since they were a child, because their parents did, and their grandparents before that.
As I created the space to ask the question and really listen to the honest answer that echoed back, I realized why I had made the choice to give this time. And it was for none of the above reasons.
Perhaps you’ll think it odd, but I’m not going to tell you what that reason was, only that I was content with it once it surfaced. Why am I not telling you? Well, because I want this to be about you —not me.
Some may argue that why is largely irrelevant. For instance, the money collected by a charity will presumably help people regardless of the reason it was given. And if we were to leave the agent out of the equation, focusing only on the recipient, that might be true.
But being a champion of choice, I do believe that our why matters every bit as much as our what.
Sometimes — even more.
Considering the why seems to me to be the difference between true choice and mere habit. Between passion and drudgery. Between character and a lack thereof.
Losing track of why leads to many an engaged couple arguing, crying and being downright mean over disagreements concerning their wedding plans.
Losing track of why lands many a young person who at first set out to change the world settling into jobs they hate doing things they don’t care about.
Losing track of why causes friends and lovers to grow unappreciative, demanding or distant.
Losing track of why allows B.E.A.S.T.s (“Big Energy-Absorbing Stupid Things”) to settle in, gobbling up more and more time and energy and thought and joy until we wake up one day to realize we no longer like our lives (please — read this past post if you haven’t already; it could very well change your life).
Losing track of why produces begrudging writers motivated more by deadlines than love of the craft.
Losing track of why creates bitter holiday party planners, cynical and ineffectual teachers, buyable politicians, and families at perpetual odds with one another.
I’m not proposing that we should subject each of our actions and reactions to scrutiny, placing them under a microscope, nor that spontaneity is to be avoided. I love spontaneity. What’s more, I do see plenty of evidence of what’s been dubbed “analysis paralysis”: doing so much thinking that you get nothing done.
I’m simply suggesting that we stop to consider our motives every so often along the way, especially where the big stuff is concerned; and if we discover that we’ve lost track of our why somewhere along the way — that we set a plan in motion to find it again.