Coffee Lesson

I was about 25 years old when I bumped into an acquaintance at the Tim Hortons at the top of the hill in Salmon Arm. I don’t remember if we saw each other in the line-up or at a table, but somehow we ended up sitting together by a window. He was probably close to my parents’ age, or maybe a bit older. We likely talked about work and vacation plans and retirement, and then somehow the conversation turned to something a bit more intimate. Because this would’ve been about 11 years ago, I don’t recall how one thing to led to another, but I will forever remember a brief sentence he spoke to me that day.

“Tend well to your relationships.”

I’m not sure of the grammatical correctness of that sentence, but that’s beside the point.

As the years have gone on and new situations have arisen in my own little world and in the bigger world out there, that little saying often pops into my head.

Right now, we are experiencing a pandemic. This, too, has brought out different sides of us as individuals and of our relationships. We are forced to face feelings and questions that we might not otherwise be facing. I know I’ve had a mixed bag of feelings lately: dread, sadness, calm, frustration, relief, uncertainty. There have been many new things to ponder: How will we stay safe and sane as individuals? How will we deal with our partners, families, coworkers, neighbours, friends? How can we reach out to others with empathy? In these strange times, maybe we can look past others’ snappiness a bit more. Maybe we can give of ourselves a bit more (from a safe distance), even if our instinct is to withdraw. Maybe we can think of something funny or generous or comforting that we can do to make things a bit easier for ourselves and others.

When I think of other challenging times in my life, what often comes to my mind is the countless ways in which other people showed up and, wittingly or not, rescued me. I think of an older couple I’ve known for most of my life, who, after seeing something I’d posted on Facebook a few years ago, drove in from Vernon to take me out for lunch because they were concerned about me. At another time in my life, when I was just starting to sense Christianity slipping away from me despite how badly I wanted to hold onto it forever, my brother and I stood at the end of our parents’ driveway, talking about my stuggles with God, prayer, faith. At the end of our conversation that winter night, he hugged me so uncharacteristically tightly and wordlessly that to this day I still feel the significance of that hug. I think of an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner from a co-worker who knew I’d be alone one year, and an out-of-the-blue cheque for a big sum of money from someone who thought I needed it, and the long phone calls with friends who put up with me pouring out heart and soul about some situation I’ve already poured out heart and soul about a dozen times.

As I reflect on these examples, my heart is warmed and I am inspired to give, too — to make time for others even if it’s been a long day, to reach out to someone even when I feel awkward about it, to make adjustments to my ways of thinking so I can be gracious when it’s difficult to be gracious. I am reminded of a quote by the basketball player and coach John Wooden: “Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.” Of course, we won’t always know what kind of impact our efforts will make, but that’s okay. Plus, chances are that along the way these gestures will warm our hearts and add colour to our lives, too, and that’s a gain.

Of course, as I’m sure most people have experienced at some point or another, there have also been times in my life when people did not show up when I thought they would. For whatever reason — and it could be anything from obliviousness to indifference to confusion to selfishness to whatever else — the people we expect to be there for us… aren’t. The silences can be unbearable, I know. My view of certain relationships changed drastically when I learned that those “good friends” knew about such happenings as my broken-off engagement in 2013, or my departure from the church I’d attended for decades, or a car accident in which my car was totalled, and yet the only response I received from them was absolute silence. The term “fairweather friends” isn’t unclear to me anymore, and I know how disheartening it can be to realize that some friends disappear as soon as there’s a storm. These experiences can also be good lessons on how not to tend to others. Along the same lines, when it comes to “tending well to my relationships,” I’m learning that the one and only person that I have much control over is myself. I cannot, in fact, make another person reach out to me or care about me or understand my idiosyncrasies. Interestingly, this reminds me of Santa Claus! At Christmastime years ago, a friend’s mom made a remark like, “Well, maybe there’s no such thing as Santa, but YOU can be like Santa.” For me, the same goes for God. I can try my best to be a Santa-like or godlike person, even if Santa and God aren’t real to me anymore, and that’s just as good (almost). I can try my best to be the type of family member or friend that I would want other people to be for me and, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, “the rest is not my business.”

Wherever you find yourself during this pandemic and in life in general, my hope is that you are doing well, that you are “tending well” to others, and others, to you. One last sentiment, some words of wisdom from Desmond Tutu: “Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”