This weekend I ran into a local grocery store to grab dinner. As I was winding my way through the salad bar, I looked up and saw a familiar face. I couldn’t quite place the person but their face was instantly familiar. It took about another minute before I realized it was a classmate from college. Surprised and delighted that I had ran across the person, I began to walk up to them to say hello and stopped when a second realization hit me…..they were wearing an apron and a name tag. I had automatically assumed that they were in the grocery store to grab some provisions before heading back home. I never once thought and did the concept run across my mind that they actually worked at the store.
And for a moment, I felt embarrassed. Not for myself but them. I quickly gathered my items and made my way to the checkout line. On my way home, I reflected on where things “went wrong” for this person. Where did our Ivy League education fail them? What happened to force them to work stocking shelves in a grocery store? A million things were running through my head. I continued ruminating as I sat and ate dinner thinking back on all the jobs I had, all the jobs my family has had and I felt sick. Then I felt ashamed of myself for letting an elitist mentality pervade my thoughts. I had fed into the hype that graduating from School X gave us special privilege. That working with your hands was somehow below working at a desk. In the end, I realized that it’s a job and there is dignity in all work. The tiredness that comes from a hard day’s work is a badge of honor, whether it came from lifting boxes or crunching spreadsheets. Making a living, taking care of your family and providing for yourself is nothing anyone should be ashamed of doing. I was the one who should be ashamed……
So I went back to the store and asked if Person X was working today. They said s/he was stocking shelves in the cereal aisle. I walked over to the aisle, saw them working diligently and called their name. They looked up and smiled, cocked their head to one side not recognizing who I was immediately and laughed a big laugh. And laughed again when they gave me a super-sized bear hug. And I cried.
They looked radiant. Happy. Healthy. Composed. We briefly chatted and made plans to meet soon to catch up over coffee. As we were saying our goodbyes, s/he looked at me and said point blank….”most of our classmates come into the store and avoid me. They think something horrible happened that I am working here. Wasn’t my plan but I can’t complain either because I feel good. Thank you for saying hi and I can’t wait to catch up.”
In this few moments, I had learned what true dignity and grace looked like while standing in a grocery store. So with that, I wish you a Happy Labor Day…..may you each find the dignity and grace in your professions and let it shine through your actions.
[photo credit: David Parker]