Monday, 7 January 2013

Picking Sides

When I rocked up to the bank half an hour before closing time, I expected to just carry out my transaction and go home. What actually happened was a little more interesting: I got to see two distinct sides of human nature played out in response to the same situation, and it got me thinking about how easy it is to exceed or fall short of our best selves in a split second.

The bank seemed short-staffed: two cashiers were tied up in dealing with one person's complicated affairs, leaving one lone woman to handle the rest of us. The queue extended out the door, but I was close enough to the service counters to witness an elderly lady try to convert her bags of loose change into larger coins and notes. When the bags were weighed, she turned out to be 10p short and after rummaging around in her purse and pockets she didn't have the extra money.

Enter Exhibit A: the man behind her in the queue, maybe in his late 20s or early 30s, who immediately fished the missing money out of his wallet and offered it to her. After some hesitation, it was accepted and the coins were changed into a note. The lady then stepped aside and was on her way out, only to be called back by the same man who noticed that she had forgotten to take the money she had just converted with her. He joked that he could have kept it and made "a tidy profit"; she joked that - judging from his honesty and kindness - Christmas clearly wasn't over; everyone in the queue laughed and smiled at each other and for once it felt like we might live in a community after all.

Enter Exhibit B: a man, same demographic, who was one of the next customers in the queue. When it was his turn to be served it transpired that - after waiting all that time - he hadn't brought the correct things with him, at which point irritability surfaced and the cashier's face fell. The situation was resolved relatively quickly and he tersely thanked her and huffed out.

Queues are inconvenient. They derail and hinder us and stop us from being the centre of our world. When I'm forced to queue, I'm forced to acknowledge that other people's agendas are also important, and that certain things are outside of my control. Without wanting to make metaphors out of molehills, queues are just one minor example of a whole range of situations it's possible to have to endure when we'd rather not.

But isn't it always said that when we can't choose the circumstances, we can still choose our attitude? It struck me that I have been both these people. I have been alert enough to others to recognise an opportunity to randomly step in and help. I have also been self-absorbed or targeted my frustrations at someone else, making their day that little bit worse.

I don't know the reasons why being held up was so annoying for Exhibit B - he was probably completely justified. But I do know I'd like to be more consistently like Exhibit A because - let's face it - who doesn't want a little more kindness and community in everyday life?

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