I was a waiter at an upscale steakhouse in Seattle, and we’d just hired some new busboys, or bussers, as we called them. Bussers were like junior waiters, bringing water to new tables, clearing plates, sometimes helping to deliver food if things were particularly busy. The best ones knew what to do and when to do it. You rarely had to ask them to set a table or pour coffee. The new ones, however, needed some instruction, and in the middle of a lunch rush, when you’ve got eight tables going and half of them are ready for their check and the other half are waiting to order, those instructions might not be delivered as gently as they could be.
Leo, a new busboy, seemed a little slow to learn his responsibilities. The water showed up after I’d taken drink orders, I was clearing all the plates myself, and tables weren’t getting set right away. It was frustrating, but this how it went sometimes, and the only thing to do is tell him what needs doing. I’d just been sat two new tables, and noticed a table of four lawyers needed their plates cleared, and Leo was just standing in his station. On my way to greet the new tables, I paused at the bus station.
“I need you to clear 22.”
He looked right at me, and asked, “What’s in it for me?”
That was Leo’s first and last day as a busboy. I found him a little scary the way he looked at me when he asked what was it in for him. There was something cold in his eye that spoke of the end of civilization: It’s every man for himself now. At the same time, I recognized his question as one we all have to ask ourselves about everything. I was the father of two young boys at that time, neither of whom would ever be described as obedient. My wife and I both tried the “Do this because we said so” approach early on. That didn’t work. The parent-child hierarchy was lost on them. Instead, we had to help them understand why going to bed before midnight, or doing their homework, or brushing their teeth was in their best interest.
This was not always so simple. Often, all I really knew was why it was in my best interest for them to please, please, please go to bed. I was tired and I needed a break and could they just do this for me? Yet I didn’t want to raise them believing that pleasing someone else was a good reason to do anything. You can spend your whole life trying to please one person and know only failure. Marriage, for instance, will teach you that in a hurry.
I think of those early parenting years sometimes when I hear about the anti-mask rebellions carried out in the name of freedom. I find those demonstrators as frustrating as I found my sons’ bedtime rebellions, which were done in the name of freedom also. For some reason, my boys could not perceive the connection between the hour they went to bed and their exhaustion midway through school the next day. All they knew is they still felt like being awake at 2:00 AM.
The masks, meanwhile, represent the unseen connection between us all, the reality that like it or not it’s never every man for himself. I don’t like wearing my mask when I go shopping. It fogs my glasses and makes breathing a little hard. But I have come to understand it as a form of kindness. I used to see kindness as an obligation, a behavior necessary to be accepted by the tribe. Until, that is, I asked myself, “What’s in it for me?” The answer is that it always immediately feels better to be kind than to be unkind. It doesn’t feel better because I know I’m a good person, or because this other person is now happy, it feels better in the same way it feels better to do work you love rather than work you hate. It’s how I know I’m doing what’s right for me.
I don’t know why this is so hard to learn, but it is. For some of us, it’s easy to wear the mask but hard to do the right kind of work; for others, just the opposite. One of the great benefits of raising the kind of boys I did was learning that in the end the gravitational pull toward kindness, towards love, is greater than fear. I could not replace that force, I could only trust in it, knowing that whenever a person does what is truly right them, it will simultaneously be right for everyone.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo courtesy iStock