The “why me” of being a preacher’s kid works both ways. It was more often asked in exasperation, but sometimes in guilt. I didn’t ask to be singled out in this way, and to the extent that it worked to my advantage, I was even more uncomfortable with the label.
I recall the restaurant we frequented after Sunday morning services, which was a small-town dive in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, featuring a Sunday dinner serving line with meat-and-three setup. I adored their marshmallow-y Mississippi Mud Pie, wrapped in individual squares with plastic wrap on a white Styrofoam plate. And if memory serves, they didn’t charge us for the food.
Many years have passed since I was an active member of the Holier-Than-Thou club, so this is one of my few distinct memories of receiving a cash-valued perk as part of my dad’s entourage. I do recall thinking, though, that it wasn’t right. I knew how poor many of the area’s residents were, and how much better off we were than so many of them. I did not understand why we received the free food.
As I got older, I noticed that people in certain positions received preferential treatment because of the social honor conferred on their profession. Others received perks because people wanted to “get in good” with them.
The perfect intersection of honoring those who serve and buying them off is law enforcement. I particularly noticed when police officers waltzed into businesses and got what they liked for no charge. When I began working at an ice cream shop in college, I bristled at following the manager’s instructions to hand over free coffee and food to them.
Throughout my adult life, one of my quirks has been my refusal to look doe-eyed at service professionals and worship their selflessness. I am certain this comes from the experience of having grown, otherwise reasonable people fawn over my father, who, as I mentioned in the previous post, I saw as a preacher and not a minister. He sought and gained attention for his virtuosic pulpit performances, then was able to double-back and also take a victory lap as a servant of his congregation when he did not relish that role. (He was a hermit, TBH.)
I have always taken a hard line against this hero worship, even with my own objective understanding that people like nurses, teachers, and EMTs, as a rule, give so much of themselves and have a profound impact on others’ quality of life. Unfortunately, I have also encountered people in these roles who could not be bothered to care or lift a finger to help their charges, so those experiences have re-toughened my stance.
When I go on cruises, there is a ritual in the opening-night-at-sea kickoff show, where the cruise director makes their pitch to the audience that we are one big family for the next several days and we should get to know each other. As part of this, he or she asks for audience members to stand and be noticed while the rest of the audience applauds: nurses, EMTs, firefighters, teachers, and finally, the military (and of course, “thank you for your service”).
Although I applaud and have genuine appreciation for these people, who by the way, are performing jobs that I could NEVER see myself doing, I am discomfited and annoyed by this ritual, and the ones like them that play out in society a million times a day.
There’s a scraggly older guy on MARTA who has been panhandling for years. He introduces himself as a homeless veteran to the train car at large, and his speech to the ridership always revolves around a woe-is-me-no-one-appreciates-my-service despondency. I always ask the same question in my head as he speaks–would he be any less needy if he weren’t a veteran? If not, then what is the point of mentioning it?
From the polite applause of the cruise ship audience to the pity angle used by the MARTA guy to get money, my takeaway from these situations is not that we honor people who serve, but that we honor the convention of honoring the professions. That’s three times removed, if you’re counting.
By the time you drill down to the individuals getting the benefit of all this honor, you could be dealing with a huckster, an egotist, a power-tripper, or an indifferent boob who chose a career with the care of a blindfolded darts player.
And then you have someone like, oh well, for instance, let’s say — me. I make a living as an accountant. In my job, I interact with dozens of people in a week, and I take the tone and substance of my interactions seriously. I am fastidious in how I represent myself and my company. I choose to affirm and encourage others’ humanity and hard work. I strive to give the clearest instructions and explanations to accompany the dry numbers and mind-numbing processes that churn out and verify the financial information that others review for insights into how the company is performing. And I take time to share good work habits, hacks, and educational tidbits about the job, the company, and the industry, with my team.
And I let them say hi to my cat when he jumps into the videoconference frame.
I’m a freakin’ treasure and credit to my company and my profession. Well, maybe that’s overstating the case a bit, but that is my earnest goal.
How is it, then, that a nurse, who rolls her eyes when I ask if I’m supposed to take off my shoes before stepping on the scale during my annual physical, can go to any event, share her profession, and receive the fealty of everyone in attendance? I, in contrast, get asked if I can do strangers’ taxes for free (I’M NOT THAT KIND OF ACCOUNTANT – WE DON’T ALL DO TAXES) and am treated to unoriginal accountant-bashing humor.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not asking for pity because I chose a decent-paying profession that gets a little bad press here and there. Instead, I am asking: what are we really honoring when we make these gestures based on one bit of knowledge about a person?
I can be a hypocrite with the best of them, but this is one area where I feel like I’ve been consistent: when I was part of the “in” crowd, as it were, I posed the question, “What about them?” Now that I’m no longer a part of it, my question is, “What about me?”
We struggle with labels all the time. Wars are fought over them. Identities are forged with their assistance. We cannot lose sight that behind those labels, people are people, and deserve to be honored (or dishonored) individually. We all have our own contributions to make.
After all, if everyone was out in the world saving lives, we’d just be a big roll of Lifesavers.
No, I don’t know what that means.