From My Readings: Acting Cheerful is Not A Choice (Telushkin, Values)

Today a friend of mine posted a link to Facebook that said “Maybe the reason you get bad customer service is because you’re a bad customer.” She works in customer service and takes a lot of abuse from her customers. I sympathize, because I’ve been there and done that – both as the service person and, to my chagrin, as the customer.

I need to remember not to do that any more, for a number of reasons – most of which are fundamentally Jewish reasons. I will explain.

First, in Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values, one of the values (day 33) is “Acting Cheerfully is Not a Choice.” This seems to be a little much at first reading, but Telushkin’s explanation points out that it’s not our right to inflict our bad moods or bad tempers on other people. People serving us in a business transaction did not ask for our bad mood, and it’s not our right to dump it on them. He quotes Prager saying “We have a moral obligation to be as happy as we can be.” A passage from the Talmud backs his up for Telushkin as well: “The man who shows his teeth to his friend in a smile is better than one who gives him milk to drink.”

For me, this also ties into the I-Thou relationship as opposed to the I-It relationship (which comes from Martin Buber’s work). We tend to see people who are serving us in business transactions as Its, rather than Thous. We don’t see them as people. And this even goes beyond business relationships to other relationships, when we start just thinking of other people as a means to an end, rather than as human beings. The mechanic produces a functioning car. The grocer supplies food that is quality enough that I can eat it. The storekeeper sells me a kippah so I can wear it. But do I know anything about these folks as human beings? Do I care? If they died tomorrow, would I notice it in any way other than the basic material irritation of having to find another mechanic?

Well, this value tells me I should care. If that’s my regular mechanic, I should know more about him than just that he fixes cars. I should know the shopkeeper where I buy my Judaica, ideally by name. Even in the process of conversion, it’s easily possible to slip into thinking of the rabbi as a gatekeeper whom we must “get something” from, instead of another human being who has knowledge we do not have.

But that can only happen if we stop seeing them as their role, and start seeing them as a person. Instead of Jim the mechanic, I should be seeing Jim Smith, whose wife is having surgery next week and who is pretty stressed out. Instead of seeing Rabbi Jones, I should be seeing David, my rabbi, whose son is moving towards a bar mitzvah in two weeks. I should know more about them than just their names and their roles.

I work hard with my students so that they know that I don’t really see my doctorate as something that puts me “above” them. I work hard to make them see me as a coach, not a high-muckety-muck. But I’ve known professors in my time who really needed their students to see them as minor gods, and who maintained that I-It relationship for all they were worth. I refuse to do that. I try to learn names as quickly as I can. I make time for casual chit-chat to know more about my students. I do my best to be open and honest with them about myself (they know I’m queer, and that I’m converting, for example). And I think it makes a difference. They remember me – and I remember them – as people, not objects.

It’s harder to see people as people when we’re grumpy, or tired, or otherwise negatively framing the world. So being cheerful is a good first step. Some research has shown that just smiling will put you in a better mood. There’s also the “fake it till you make it” idea, which has worked for me as well – just keep acting cheerful, even if you aren’t. When we do that, we’re more likely to see people as people.

Maybe that’s the lesson in this link I read today. We have to see all people as people, not as obstacles or tools. Until we do, we have no chance of healing the world.

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