The other day on the way home from work, I stopped at our local market to pick up a few things for dinner, including a bottle of wine. After I got home and looked over the grocery receipt, I noticed that next to the price entry for the wine were these words: “visually confirmed.” Since no one had asked to see my ID, I assume the checkout clerk had “visually confirmed” that I was at least 21.
When you are 21 + 30, like I am, I guess the chances of being carded are fairly slim, and a simple visual confirmation will be accurate. How many times, however, might we be making visual confirmations that are just plain wrong?
We make “visual confirmations” all the time. We see a young mom in the mall with a toddler who is acting out and conclude that she must not be a good mother. We see someone sporting multiple tattoos and piercings and draw conclusions about a racy lifestyle and drug use. We see an obese person and think she’s lazy and eats to excess.
I suppose it’s human nature to make such visual confirmations. But those confirmations can be all wrong.
That toddler might be experiencing the death of his father, acting out his fears and losses. The tattoos and piercings might simply be the expressions of a creative person who otherwise leads a fairly conventional life. The obese person might have a medical condition that led to obesity despite a physically active lifestyle and decent eating habits.
The faces of friends and coworkers don’t always tell their personal backstories. A strained personal relationship, the challenge of caring for an aging parent, the testing of a teenage child … these things can affect a person to her very core. The gruff or grouchy response you get from a coworker experiencing one of these things might be more about that and might have nothing to do with your working relationship.
My first paying job was as a front desk clerk in a family resort in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Sissy Wescott, the head clerk, taught me an invaluable lesson that summer. She reminded me that when a guest arrived at the front desk, there was no way of knowing what had brought the guest to the motel. The guest might be coming into town to attend a funeral. The guest might be on business, overloaded with work and missing her family at home. The guest might be taking the first solo vacation following a divorce or death. The guest might have had just a two-hour drive or could have been driving for 16 hours.
Sissy taught me to treat everyone well. Aim to be pleasant and provide the guests with attentive service was her motto. Make no assumptions, she said.
She might as well have said, make no visual confirmations. Hmm. That sounds a whole lot like Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself.
Linda Post Bushkofsky is executive director of Women of the ELCA.