Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Reach for Understanding

Here’s a hypothetical:

Let’s say I buy a new toaster. I bring it home, plug it in and load it with my favorite flavor of Eggos, but then the toaster suddenly explodes into a fireball and burns my whole kitchen to a crisp.

I bring in the insurance adjuster to assess the disaster area. I need this fixed fast, because, come on,  every family needs a place to prepare sustenance. After surveying the damage he concludes, “There’s no proof the toaster caused the fire. It may have been faulty wiring, and that isn’t covered by your policy. I’m afraid this one is on you. Sorry about your kitchen. Have a nice day.”

Fuming, I call my local Walmart where I bought the toaster. The lady I speak with chuckles a little bit when I tell her what happened, then she asks if I saved my receipt. Well, the receipt was lying on the counter next to the toaster, so it’s ashes. “Without a receipt you can’t prove the toaster came from our store, so I can’t help you. You can try speaking to our distributor if you want. Have a nice day.”

Fine then. “Hello, friendly toaster distributor. You brought this crap product into my Walmart, this broken machine that cooked my kitchen, so are you going to help me?” By now, I am livid and exhausted from the lack of accountability. “Well, ma’am, we just ship the product. We aren’t responsible for the behavior of the merchandise. Sorry, not our problem. You might want to call the corporate office. Have a nice day.”

&@%$#*@&#^ !!

Turns out CEOs are difficult to get on the line, but I manage to find the corporate phone number, and I try my darndest to talk to Mr. Bigshot at Bigshot Toaster Company. His secretary puts me on hold for an hour each time I call, then she tells me he can’t address my issue right now. See, he has more pressing matters to handle at the moment, she pragmatically explains. Day after day she puts me off (because my problem is not a priority) before she finally passes the buck and suggests, “Maybe you should just try our customer service center. Perhaps they will be able to help you. Have a nice day.”

I immediately hang up with secretary lady and dial their 1-800 number. Press 4 for customer service. Press 2 for product safety concerns. Press 0 if you want to speak with an associate. My fingers are literally shaking with fury and frustration. “Please wait.” Hold. Hold. Hold.

“Good afternoon, my name is Tiffany. How can I be of service to you today?”

Poor Tiffany.

By now my blood is boiling. She gets an angry earful about the money I wasted on their garbage product, about how I can’t cook my family’s food like a normal person because of HER crummy company, about their lack of concern for the safety of people like me and how absolutely no one will listen! By now, I’m threatening lawsuits and destructive media campaigns and angry boycotts!

I’m not mad at Tiffany personally, because I don’t even know her. But she’s in the line of fire right now because I’m mad at what she represents in the moment: a terrible company that firebombed my kitchen, the powers that be who refuse to accept responsibility and fix it. Tiffany may very well be a perfectly kind young lady who shows grace and respect to all her customers as she earns just over minimum wage to deal with these kinds of tirades. And yet, right or wrong, in this moment, she is the available recipient of my fiery rant.

How does Tiffany respond?

Let’s say that, in this moment, Tiffany decides to NOT explain away my problem or bite back or offer excuses, but instead she takes time to give me the grace I need (and I sure do need it). Then she fully listens to my story instead of just telling me to calm down. She listens until the whole despicable tale has been told. What if she sympathizes as best she is able and tells me she wants to do whatever she can to make it right?

And then what if she actually follows through?

What if Tiffany risks her job to quietly send an internal memo to other customer service reps to see if there is a pattern of kitchen-burning toaster explosions that has been kept off the records?

What if Tiffany’s old college roommate’s dad is actually the guy who designed the toaster, and she can get me on the phone with him to voice my complaints and to try to convince him to use his pull to correct the problem before more kitchens go up in smoke?

What if she does some digging and finds out her uncle’s best friend is on the board of directors at Bigshot Toaster Company, and she can speak to him directly, maybe even show up at a board meeting to share my story and possibly get me the help I need to get my kitchen back in order?

What if Tiffany doesn’t acquiesce to her own smallness inside the problem, but instead looks for some creative way to lend herself to the solution?

Now look, y’all, I know this is way too long, and I know we are talking about a hypothetical toaster and an imaginary charred kitchen. If this had actually happened, in the grand scheme of things, it would be a minor disruption on the spectrum of big life events. And yet I know I would still be very angry at the injustice of it all. VERY angry! About a toaster and a kitchen. Fighting angry!

So, then why on earth would we be confused about the anger bathing our society right now with regard to frighteningly real life-and-death issues and deeply rooted unjust practices? Why is our knee-jerk response to this anger to deflect, to ignore, to shirk responsibility?

(I know the above analogy is weak and overly simplistic, but I’m just trying to sort it out in my head. Forgive me if I'm still way off base.)

I want to better understand the anger, to really grasp it.

Hundreds of years of waiting on hold, voices going unheard, bucks being passed – that will certainly make a person angry. Disproportionate damage and destruction brought on by a flawed system – that should make a person angry.  Being dismissed again and again and again – that absolutely must make a person angry. Angry enough to shout and rail at anyone and everyone in earshot, whether those recipients are culpable or not.

So, at some point if I end up being the “Tiffany” who gets the earful because I happen to be the only one so far that has taken the time to listen, then, yes, God, grant me the grace to NOT explain it away, bite back or deflect. Help me to listen well and deeply, to react with soul-level sympathy, to get up and act alongside.

There is legitimate cause for the anger. It’s multi-faceted. It’s an anger of righteous amplitude, and sometimes I don’t think we fully recognize that.

And I know I have a role to play in fixing the problem. We all do.