Questions of character

The human mind is a strange thing.

This is a truism I have noticed since I first became aware of the world outside myself.

This is a truism I still encounter on a daily basis whenever I find myself amongst other people.

Two conflicting trains of thought converge and clamour for dominance in my mind this morning.

I recall a scene from Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins where Katie Holmes, as Rachel Dawes, tells Christian Bale, as Bruce Wayne:

“It doesn’t matter who you are underneath. It’s what you do that defines you.”

The mind also recalls the Biblical story of Jesus saving a woman accused of adultery from stoning.

By simply bending down on the ground and writing the sins of her accusers in the sand, he challenges them saying:

“He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

A recent conversation with a friend about a mutual acquaintance had us on different sides of the fence regarding our topic of conversation’s character.

I condemned him for his morally grey private life and his organizationally questionable work habits.

My friend, while acknowledging the acquaintance’s weaknesses, revealed aspects of his imperfect past to put his present actions into perspective.

As a teacher of language I find myself noticing that my effectiveness in improving a student’s ability to communicate in English as a foreign language is largely dependent upon the student’s personality.

I try to motivate the student as I impart new language skills, but unless the student has already determined that he / she truly wants to learn, then, and only then, will my efforts bear fruit.

As a Starbucks barista, the desire to motivate someone is more subtle.

To help feed the ever-hungry maw of the Starbucks’ stockholders, it is expected that the humble barista do all that he can to encourage customers to buy as many of our products as possible.

Though the bean counters and marketing gurus of Starbucks tend to lean towards the hard sell, I found myself more effective a salesman by simply offering the customer options, show what advantage an option has and then let the customer’s own desires set the tone.

So, for example, Starbucks is presently encouraging us to promote our pumpkin spice lattes and our Guatamalan blend beans, but I find that doing so directly, focusing on what I want them to buy rather than trying to find out what they want, is an exercise in futility and wasted breath.

So, if a customer doesn’t know what he wants, I mention the lattes.

When a customer orders a coffee, I ask if they want it stronger or milder.

If milder, then the Guatamalan blend has sold itself.

But where being a barista differs from the job of a teacher is in the surprising depth of interactions between people.

Of course, much of the barista day is focused on the rapid-fire quick contact with passing customers en route from one destination to another needing their caffeine fix.

But human interaction becomes fascinating when lingering contact is established amongst ourselves the staff or with regular customers.

Here, the barista becomes a priest, a father confessor, a bartender.

It never ceases to amaze me what regular customers and work partners will confess to me.

I am also humbled and astonished how close quarters and regular contact compel and reveal past histories to and from members of staff.

So much of the human experience seems on display during my hours at Starbucks: victories celebrated, defeats mourned, problems encountered, stress fought against, fears exposed, friendships strengthened or fractured.

The drama of life in all its splendor and complexity is laid before my wondering eyes.

A regular customer tells me of his ongoing struggles with his ex.

Another tells me of the fear and courage she has as she returns back to academia to get her law degree and truly help humanity more than she could previously.

A barista partner reveals his desire to study at far-off University of Singapore. leaving me speechless at the uniqueness of his dream.

Another regular customer reveals a roller-coaster of past and present psychological problems bravely contended with and dealt with a courage and hope that surprises not only others but especially himself.

Yet another coyly shares her excitement at having finally found the love of her life and the profound deep joy that this discovery has given her, an inner joy and a deep sense of emotional satisfaction and psychological peace.

I’ve had customers tell me in great detail their sorrows and joys in their jobs as well as their private lives.

I am honoured and moved that they feel I am worthy of their revelations and confessions.

When I listen, truly listen, to those folks eager to share their lives with me, I can’t help but ponder what is truer: our self-analysis and perspectives or the actions we take in our lives as viewed by others.

I think of my foster cousin Steve who last week received a medal of honour from our provincial parliament for his efforts to keep Canadian teenagers in school.

Having grown up with Steve, not only am I aware of his noteworthy attributes but as well aspects of his character that are not so infallible.

I admire him more because I know the weaknesses and fears that he has had to overcome to achieve his goals.

(See A sense of accomplishment: My favourite SOB of this blog.)

I think of the drunk I met on the early morning 0530 train to St. Gallen yesterday.

He tried to generate friendly conversation with me, but desiring a more peaceful commute I changed seats so I would not have to talk to him.

I judged him by his sloppy appearance, his alcoholic breath and loud manner, yet his travelling companion, a Rottweiler the size of a small pony, loved him unquestionably.

Maybe the resolution, the halfway mark, between these two different trains of thought going their two separate ways can be summed up by the adage:

Judge not, lest ye be judged.

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