Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Truth in Advertising

I’ve been working on two rather long, involved blog posts, but today I am putting them aside in order to address a situation I was reminded of this morning.

At the grocery store today, the cashier was a tall, attractive African-American woman decked out in a great deal of gold jewelry. Much of the jewelry appears to be religious in nature: a cross and a “WWJD” pendant are among the symbols indicating her beliefs. And what gets me about this woman is that, on this and every other occasion on which she has rung up my purchases, she is rude. Not in the sense of some of the teenaged cashiers I’ve seen who text while working, but impolite in a deeper sense. She doesn’t respond to anything I say. “Good morning.” Nothing. “How do you like this weather?” Nothing. “How much is this mango?” Nothing. No eye contact. No response to any question or comment. Never a smile.

The first time it happened, many months ago, I was offended. Then I started to worry that maybe she was under a lot of stress, or perhaps ill, and I tried to draw her out: “Hi, how are you?” “I like your blouse. Where did you get it?” “How are you feeling today?” I wasn’t patronizing, didn’t plead for her confidence, just tried to be a kind, respectful person. All my efforts were ignored. Pointedly ignored.

Maybe she was hard of hearing? Or had some sort of condition that affected her vocal chords? That idea was nixed when I saw her conversing with another cashier.

My strategy changed then. I’m in this store three or four times a week (she’s the only blight in the whole place—it’s a terrific grocery, really), so I had ample opportunity to emulate her own actions. But after a few weeks of my own silence at the checkout, she still hadn’t volunteered a word or made eye contact. No facial expression other than a scowl.

This morning, she rang me up, grudgingly, as always. As an experiment, I remained at the counter when she was finished. “Thank you,” I said.

She had already turned away to fiddle around with some coupons next to the register. “Thank you,” I repeated. Nothing. I tried again, a little louder. “Thank you.”

The cashier gave a sigh of impatience and walked away. (Nobody was in line behind me.)

I don’t know why she refuses to speak to me. Other cashiers have mentioned that this woman is particularly cold, so it’s nothing aimed specifically at me. And I don’t know how or why she keeps her job. I don’t even know her name — she refuses to wear a name tag. But I do know this: this woman advertises her beliefs. She wears the symbols of her faith at her neck and on her heart. These pendants are heavy and expensive. They may have cost her dearly. Yet she is not practicing her own faith. She conducts herself in a markedly un-Christian manner.

I try to be a kind and compassionate person. I have my rude moments, as do we all. but for the most part, I comport myself in a more Christian-like manner than this woman does. And I am emphatically not a Christian.

My point is simply that if you choose to wear a badge of belief, be it a “WWJD” pendant, a burka, a Star of David, or the Happy Human, then you should try to live up to it. Or down to it, as the case may be. Otherwise, you’re wearing nothing but a lie, endorsing a set of beliefs you condone but don’t practice. You’re a sham and a hypocrite.

I’ve decided not to waste any more of my time on this woman. If I see her on a cash register, I will go to another cashier. And if I do happen to end up with her again, I will say to her, “I have tried many times to be friendly to you, and you choose not to respond. Why?” I doubt I’ll get an answer. It saddens me to give up on a fellow human being for any reason, but my efforts to be kind are resulting in my own anger and frustration. Life is too short to get angry over a situation you can’t change. I’m accepting her as she is, and moving on. (And probably complaining to the store manager.)

With that in mind, I have a challenge to you as atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and anyone else who happens to read this post: Be unusually kind to someone today. It doesn’t have to be a stranger; it can be anyone you like. Be respectful and understanding. And if they thank you for your kindness, tell them about my cashier and suggest that they do an extra kindness for someone else, as well. I don’t believe in karma, but I do believe in spreading the wealth of compassion. Kindness begets kindness. And that’s something that will benefit everybody.

Amy Frushour Kelly

(edited for typos)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Short Glossary

To all who are reading so far: thank you. I’m grateful for the e-mail dialogues that have sprung up since beginning this blog.

A reader responding to my first post suggested that I include a glossary or link to clarify what I mean by some of the terms I’ve been throwing around, such as “faith” and “atheism.” Below is a short list, to give you a sense of what I intend when I used these words. Read on, and tell me what you think...

~ Atheist: Not a theist, plain and simple. This includes deists and agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, and anyone else who does not believe in a theist god.

~ Faith: Choosing to believe something despite a lack of evidence or insufficient data. It may be argued that I have faith in science and reason; this is not quite true: I have faith in science and reason because they yield replicable results. If Isaac Newton developed an experiment or equation to test a theory, I can perform the same test myself and expect to receive the same direct experiential results as Newton. So it’s not that I have faith in science and reason; I trust them. And should our understanding of the nature of the universe and physical laws change, my beliefs about the universe will change, also. This is very different from faith.

~ Theist: An individual who believes in a personal, external god; that is, a creator who takes an interest in the universe and the people who live in it. A theist god hears prayers and responds to them. This is a god you can communicate with, someone who made you and looks out for you and controls daily events. A god who gives you rules to live by and watches carefully to see whether you follow them. Kind of like a super-parent. There are monotheistic gods, like the god of Islam, polytheistic gods, like those in the Hindu religions, pantheistic gods, who are part of everything, and then there’s the trinity god of Christianity, who is three, yet one.

~ Deist: The “watchmaker god.” The watchmaker designs the watch, creates it, adjusts the settings so it will work properly, and his work is done. He doesn’t check on the watch afterwards, or listen in case the watch’s new owner has a question. He makes the watch and forgets about it. After that, the watch is on its own. Substitute the word “universe,” or “earth,” or “life,” and that’s what deism means to me.

~ Agnostic: A person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience. Someone who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge.

~ Gnostic: An individual who possesses knowledge, especially esoteric spiritual knowledge. So essentially, a person who believes not only that the universe is essentially knowable, but claims to somehow have this knowledge.

These may or may not be the same thing you might mean when using these words, and it is by no means a definitive glossary. It is meant only to represent my understanding of what these terms mean when I use them.

Do you have any suggestions for words that might be added to this list?