Stephen Williams: What was initially a sentiment of disappointment has fully morphed into sentiment of gratitude.
It has been nearly four months since I wrote this piece recounting some of my experiences, struggles, and initial observations from working as the dining room host at my local Chick-fil-A. I’ve been at the store nigh six months now, and this week I closed down the dining room for the last time.
This is not what I thought I would be doing at twenty-seven was the driving line from my previous reflections. I’ve returned to that thought a thousand times since February, but now, here at the end of this season, I find that what was initially a sentiment of disappointment has fully morphed into sentiment of gratitude. I don’t say that to sound like some kind of saint who blithely submitted to the odd circumstances of his life; I have been brought to this conclusion kicking and screaming – just ask my mother how many times I’ve continued to walk out the front door with a long sigh or a quiet groan. But whatever frustrations voiced themselves on the drive to work have, without fail, seemed always to go mute upon crossing that western threshold to the store. Each shift has brought me into renewed contact with both the starkness of the human condition and with the potential for the human condition to be redeemed. Moreover, each shift has forced me into new depths of love for my fellow Image Bearers bowed under what Whittaker Chambers called “the common weight of life.”
In his classic Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes, “The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more.” I’ve found this to be manifestly true as I have learned to love our store’s community, both customers and coworkers alike. Laughing and praying and sometimes even crying with strangers will have a marked effect on the capacity of one’s compassion, and observing both happiness and grief from outside the circle will teach one new ways of rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn.
Even so, I confess that it is difficult for me to process the cognitive dissonance that occurs when, with a single sweep of my eyes, I can behold some of life’s most tender and terrifying moments. In one corner of the room, a little boy’s laughter has his mother in stitches, while in another corner, a father’s harsh voice splits the monotonous din of the rush hour and leaves his daughter whimpering and withdrawn. One couple will spend most of their meal holding hands and barely eating while another will trade quiet insults with escalating levels of disgust. Some folks arrive in an apparently good mood and leave distraught. Still others will walk in distraught and leave with a smile on their face.
I’ve witnessed likely breakups and nervous first dates, the loud ebullience of high school and the quiet peace of the twilight years. I’ve watched pastors spend hours working a young man through the gospel of John at the same time that college students will discuss their Friday night activities with detail that frankly leaves me more painfully grieved than disturbed. But now, as I conclude my time at the store, whatever polarity has existed between these and other such scenes has somehow resolved itself in the encompassing recognition that these are all precious people living a precious life, the worth of which none of them fully grasp and only some have even begun to grasp at all.
Our current cultural moment cries out for similar recognition, I think. No, mankind is no more evil now than it was in past millennia, but due to technological advancement, there has never been another age when the human race has been quite so able to witness the polarity between depravity and redemption on demand. Unsurprisingly, the most awful of our depredations tweet the loudest and most often, and we are forced on a daily, sometimes hourly basis to try to reconcile the preponderance of our collective depravity with those often fleeting but blinding flashes of grace that that somehow make it through the fog. In the words of Isaiah 59:9, “We hope for light, and behold, darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.” We long for the transcendent reassurance that the gloom will not endure, and that longing manifests itself at each stage of our lives.
Working at our small store on Main Street in Salem has granted me the privilege to witness that longing at many of those stages. The high-schoolers are desperate for attention and the reassurance of their own intrinsic worth. The college students are desperate for comfort and the reassurance that the enormity of adult life will not swallow them up. The scores of exhausted, devoted mothers are desperate for confidence and the reassurance that they do not love their children in vain. The elderly folks are desperate for reassurance that life has not totally passed them by. All long for a Hope that comes from the Better Country, though all do not realize it as such.
I pray that I have been a small channel for that Hope over the past six months, that somehow I have reflected the Brightness for which I find my own soul so anxiously longing. I will miss the insanity of the rush hours, the laughs with my coworkers, the sunsets out the western window. I will miss digging through trash cans looking for lost keys, striking up long conversations with train hoppers, and cleaning up the remains of the ketchup battle royale that happened on the playground one morning. But most of all, I think I will miss Wyatt asking me about my white towel and Alyssa calling me “Stefan”, to say nothing of Noah’s exclamations, Charlotte Ross’s one-liners, and Jett and Cade’s brotherly mischief. I certainly won’t be able to forget George’s laugh or Dalton’s handshakes or Felix’s quiet smile. These children have been Brightness to me during a season when the need was great, and for that grace alone, among many others, I am profoundly and eternally grateful.
[Photo credit: Stephen Williams]
Stephen Williams is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and soon to be a resident of Phoenix, Arizona.