Lessons From A Stranger


L_Cara-750She didn’t have to do it. But she saw the tears in my eyes and she saw the reddening frustration in my face and she saw the screaming toddler slumped over my protruding, bloated belly.

She saw me, and that was all it took. And in that moment, receiving her gift of kindness was the only thing I could do in return.

Because it was just one of those days: Thomas the Train wasn’t enough today, and Mama ran out of more “Berries! Berries!” All I wanted to do was lay on the couch and hibernate for another nine months, and all my son wanted to do was run and catch and throw, repeat—run and catch and throw, repeat.

By the time we arrived at Target, he wasn’t having the cart and I wasn’t having his tantrums, but what’s a girl to do when you’re already splitting the one remaining square of toilet paper in two, and all the baby-in-womb seems to crave is a bowl of Quaker Oats?

Although I could have—and perhaps should have—left the store the minute we walked inside, I remained determined to win. I’ll beat him at his own game, I thought to myself. But there’s no beating the stubborn will of a 25-month old—and by the time we met that Stranger-of-a-Saint in line, we’d both fought the good fight … and lost.

So somehow, perhaps because she saw me, she just knew. She knew we needed to not wait in line a minute longer than necessary: she began clearing her items from the conveyer belt, putting them back into her cart, motioning her young daughter to help. In broken English, she said, “Go ahead of us, please.” She waved and she motioned at me—and she, the giver of kindness—tacked on a please, to me, the recipient.

All I could do was receive.

All I could do was hope she saw the thank you, thank you, thank you of my teary eyes, and the bless you, bless you, bless you emanating from choked-up throat.

Now, a week later, I think and reflect on this little two-minute gift of selflessness, and I can’t help but muse that she is a woman who knows how to lead.

And it makes me realize that leadership looks different from my own original definitions of it, when I toted a leader as the one with wit and charm and good looks, to boot. A gregarious, up-front, hilarious attitude was naturally a part of the package, as was—at least in the Evangelical circles of my youth—the one who preached the best sermon, who loved Jesus the most, who emanated holiness the best.

This person I placed on Kingdom’s pedestal, but try as I might, I’d never add up to him or her. I’d only continue to endlessly play my own pawn against in the great game of Compare and Contrast.

Because perhaps the act of leading is different from the definitions and boundaries and walls I built around it for so long. Perhaps the one who leads takes more notice of others than of herself.

Maybe it means we listen more than we speak and we try our hardest to be faithful in the little things. We put to practice the words of that little Parisian prayer, often attributed to Saint Francis: where there is hatred we seek to sow love; where there is sadness, we grow joy. We seek not to be understood but to understand, not to be consoled but to console—“… for it is in giving that we receive.”

Because maybe the true meaning of leadership is found in letting go of self.

In a sense, this gives me hope, because it’s a tangible something I can do: when I’m sitting across Starbucks from a friend, I can listen to what she’s actually saying, instead of trying to figure out my next best anecdote to her tale.

When I’m on a walk with my husband, I can take delight in the Real Him, instead of in the nagging version my own unrealistic expectations place upon him. And when I’m with my son—both the freedom-fighting toddler, and the little one yet to be born—I can delight in the present. I can let go of my to-do list and I can get down on his level and I can seek to understand the ramblings of his still-young heart.

And maybe then, in this letting go of self and in seeing The Other as more important than myself, I too will come to find a stranger in need at the check-out line

The least I can do is hope to lead in this way.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


Image credit: Gabriela Pinto