Every time we interact with another person, we have two options: to build that person up or to tear his confidence down. This is true regardless of the message we want to deliver or the purpose for interacting.
I was at the market a couple of months ago buying food for dinner. I was in a hurry, but as usual I’d piled the cart with more than just the three or four items I needed. The half-full cart (and my distractable nature) had put me behind and I needed to get home ASAP.
As I reached the checkout counters, I noticed one checker had no line. I scooted in, eager to pay and leave. Not five seconds later, a woman walked up behind me with a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine in her hands.
Enter a moral dilemma.
Do I let her go first or hold my place? I knew what I wanted to do – but it didn’t feel right – so I turned around and said “Go ahead, you only have two things.”
The woman almost started to cry. Apparently, she’d been at a funeral that afternoon and stopped at the market just long enough to get something to round out her dinner. As the checker rang up her purchases, she looked at me and said, “You just restored my faith in people. That may not make sense to you, but it means the world to me that I didn’t have to stand here feeling sad.”
I felt like a heel.
When she walked up, my instinct was to ignore her. I wanted to pay for my groceries and go home to my dinner … first. I wanted to take the place that was rightfully mine. I let her go ahead because my conscience demanded it, but I’d done it more from ingrained politeness than real desire.
In the end, however, it didn’t matter. That simple gesture – made from politeness alone – met this stranger at her place of need. It built her up and strengthened her in a time of sadness – and although she never explained why my behavior restored her faith in people, the answer isn’t relevant or required. It’s enough to know that I made the right choice, the choice that built a stranger up and added something positive to an otherwise terrible day.
The incident sticks in my mind because of how easily and silently I could have missed the opportunity. I could have kept my place in line. The stranger would have continued in line behind me and said nothing. Perhaps she would have considered me selfish. Perhaps her misery was too deep to have noticed. In my world, she would have been invisible and quickly forgotten – where now we will both remember one another for years to come.
Every interaction represents an opportunity. Will you build a stranger up or simply look away?
Your future may not depend upon the decision you make, but your power to make a positive difference does.
Choose now. Choose wisely. Choose to build up instead of tearing down.