Sunday, May 20, 2012

Strength of Heart

Lessons, as we all know, often come in the most interesting packages. Recently, one has come to me in the form of a part-time job. It’s a cashiering position at a busy building supply store. I wanted a job that I could leave at the worksite: a place of employment that gave me money but no extra worries; a job that gave me time and space to write and do my Bodymind sessions with ease and clear mind. But, as they say, be careful what you wish for.

I haven’t done this kind of work in many years, probably since I was a teenager. Back then it would have been easy: new computer programs a breeze and the camaraderie with other staff a bonus. Coming at it from the late stages of peri-menopause with its concurrent foggy brain and perpetual fatigue I’ve discovered it to be a far greater challenge. One of the biggest feats, however, is how to maintain an open heart.

A busy hour can see up to fifty people pass my till. Some shifts are such that those busy hours last all day. I try for the most part to greet each person as an individual and then send them off with eye contact and words of care. I laugh a lot and even bop along to the sixties rock playing in the background. Most people respond in kind with the result that a connection, albeit a temporary one, is made. It feels good.

Ever so often, however, the routine is broken and someone comes in with a combustible mood. Regardless of whether it has to do with something the store sells or doesn’t sell, bad service or whatnot, the cashier is usually the place where the spark is ignited. I’ve been handling it fairly well letting the words slide off me but a few days ago there were just a few too many sly innuendos, despairing looks and plain rudeness pointed in my direction. I came home feeling like my heart had been trampled upon. Thankfully, I was off for a few days but I maintained a listless and melancholy mood for the next 24 hours. In an attempt to self-medicate I retold my tale of woe to three friends and countless times to myself but still felt the same emptiness. It wasn’t until that night while lying in bed that I finally got the story right. It wasn’t so much the fact that people can be hurtful but that one day, I might not bounce back; that one day, I may close myself off and stop caring.

Every day I go into work determined to sing and dance my way through customer interactions with as much grace as possible. I vow to let the occasional bad experience slide off me and open my heart to the next encounter. For the most part my plan works but I am finding it is taking a toll. I feel it in my body at the end of the day as I drag myself home. I feel it in a slow but burning desire to shut myself off when faced with yet another question, another problem. I see it on the faces of those who have done this job for many more years than I: the protective mask that comes down as the customer approaches. Facial expressions that go blank or worse, appear with a pasted smile and eyes that flatten out as all gears shift into neutral.

Initially this mask is used only when there is need but soon takes over with even the most subtle of provocation. At the end stage, it is there with all encounters and may even become defensive. While it is maddening for the customer it is, at times, a survival necessity for the clerk who feels they cannot risk being exposed to yet another irritated client; another hurtful comment. The shield works well. The unfortunate thing is that while the shield blocks out the negative, it also wards off the positive.

The challenge I set for myself is to keep that shield at bay.
A friend humbled me with her response as I spoke of my concerns. She compared it to a family situation in which her attempts at connection were constantly disdained by someone with bonds too close to ignore. She said that for her it was about finding strength of heart to continue despite the pain. I sat with her words. At first I wanted to deny that my trivial work concerns could even compare but then I saw the universal truth in her statement. Life throws us all sorts of challenges whether they be intimate and long term or mundane and temporary. To compartmentalize them and say, this one is worthy while that is not, undermines the integrity of heart-centred living and belies the connection we share with all other beings.

The question is the same regardless of the situation: do we have the strength of heart to continually open ourselves up to the next possible connection?


  1. Beautiful Jo-Ann....It does take courage to stay open...xoxo

  2. In a world where burnout is common in the service industry, people find little reluctance to abuse those who stand behind a counter, and customer service can be withheld unwittingly,I really appreciate your words Jo-Ann.
    I think for me it is around choice within my own self-care. And yes, that can lead to being sometimes guarded and sometimes missing opportunity for connection. I personally, can only maintain this kind of openness for periods of time and then it has the potential to become taxing to my system, then a shield is necessary for taking care of me. The shield does not necessarily have to be unkind, disconnected or even uncompassionate, just an awareness of where my boundaries are and not taking whatever the complaint is personally. Most people who are, shall I say miserable, really just want to be heard and contacting their concern, no matter how trivial, often opens their heart in response...and then there are those who are miserable just to be miserable and there is nothing you can do.

    I admire your awareness and perseverance in staying open-hearted... I am wondering if it is possible with every single interaction or just a standard to work toward?

  3. Thank you Carla, Amy. You pose some interesting thoughts there, Amy, especially, when you talk of boundaries. Basically, how to be open-hearted but not codependent. I hear you and I believe, as you write, that a shield does not have to be unkind or without compassion. It is more, as you imply, a knowledge of what is mine and what is theirs. I am reminded of something David Palladin wrote to describe "Warriers of Compassion". He says: "...They experience their wounds as gifts, as opportunities. To be truly brave is to lay down all the weapons and stand naked in the midst of the foe. To hear the foe crying and change those tears to laughter. The Shamans know that the worunds are not their but the world's. The pains are not theirs but Mother Earth's. The tears are really the purifying rain."

    And finally, I think it is possible to say open-hearted with ever single interaction. I am not saying I will achieve this but it is certainly a standard to work towards.