True Greatness

Greatness is all around us. We see greatness displayed prominently in the media: the evening news, talent shows, and the front page of the newspaper. Greatness often manifests itself in the form of a world-renown surgeon, a motivational speaker, an internet hit, a military hero, or the one who sacrifices something for somebody else in the public eye. But greatness is not found in the spotlight alone. Greatness, a much quieter and in many ways more powerful greatness, exists in the midst of the throws of humanity. Sadly, this greatness is often taken for granted, overlooked, and sometimes, even frowned upon. When that greatness is finally discovered, if it is ever discovered, it is oftentimes called “rare” because many folks don’t take the time to recognize the people living their lives all around them in this greatness.

I’ll be quiet honest. When I began to grow, show potential in school, and dream of becoming something “great,” my parents weren’t exactly encouraging me to become a “Sandwich Artist” at Subway, or a nurse’s assistant like I am now (Let’s just be straight up. The job I’m working now isn’t even that qualified. I’m a caregiver, essentially). They probably didn’t dream of me working any other “low-end” job I could potentially get one day, such as a janitor, trash truck driver, waitress, or cashier/checkout person at a grocery store.

Sure, when I was working at Subway, they supported me 100%, praised me for my accomplishments, and loved me just the same. Now that I’m a nurse’s assistant, basically at the bottom of the hospital totem pole, they have shown pride in what I do, no matter how “low” I am when held against society’s standards. They give me total support beyond a shadow of a doubt. I’ve never noticed even a glint of disapproval in their eyes or voices. But I’m sure that they, just as I do, dream of me becoming something “greater.”

Yet, our society is filled to the brim with people working jobs like I am. Like I said above though, greatness is not found in the spotlight alone. Greatness, the more powerful greatness I described, is often found in its quintessence in the palms of the gentle hands that hold that spotlight. Maybe it is found in the man who replaces the spotlight’s bulb, or who mops the stage. Maybe that greatness is discovered hidden in the woman who tested the microphone or who built the camera.

I’ve seen greatness twice in this year. The greatness I saw manifested itself in two different men working two different jobs, a greatness which simply couldn’t be ignored. It shone so brightly from both of them that I swear, they both must have greatness bursting through the seams of their souls. It was like I was a moth drawn irresistibly to a prominent light. Yet, I’m sure if either one of them was to read this, they’d blush and give me the “Aww, shucks,” response. Neither one of them probably sees himself as great.

I do, though, and I couldn’t resist highlighting them for just a moment, even if this is the only “spotlight” they ever receive. Even if they never even know the spotlight was on them. I find inspiration in these two men. They are lessons, lessons that I will carry with me in my heart no matter how high I climb in any career, financial, or social ladder, or even if I were to stay static exactly where I am at. These men are treasures.

The first is a man working in a convalescent home where I completed my clinicals for my Nursing Assistant training. His name is Roger, a Certified Nurse’s Assistant. Every morning, he changes Depends, wipes butts, washes faces, brushes hair, clothes wrinkled bodies, feeds mouths, nurtures souls, and while he does all of this, he sings. He sings all day long.

I stumbled across Roger on a day when I was frustrated after being unfairly reprimanded by my instructor. I was behind in my skills practice due to a stomach flu that had taken me down, been placed on the total care hall and given four patients who could do nothing for themselves, the doctors were on the line demanding the vital signs I’d not yet written into the book, and I was so frustrated, fighting a man who wouldn’t let me put his pants on while his roommate was trying to empty his colostomy bag in the sink for the third time that morning, calling my name to for me to come and help him.

I was hurrying down the hall, trying to find a nurse to help me with one of my patients, and I heard singing coming from one of the rooms. It changed to whistling for a moment, then to humming, and then back to singing. Curiosity drove me, so I took just a moment to take a deep breath, exhaling the morning’s drama, and to peer into the room where the cheerful melodies drifted from. Roger was holding up a nightgown for a patient telling her, “Come on, beautiful. Time to get up! I need to put this lovely gown on you and make you look gorgeous.”

“I don’t want to,” she was arguing grouchily. It reminded me of the great pants battle I’d just fought only minutes earlier, coming out barely victorious by the skin of my teeth.

“You’ll be a princess if you wear this,” he promised. I’ll be your prince!” She let him slip the gown over her head, and even gave him a slight smile. He began to sing again.

I began noticing Roger wherever he was. He was smiling all the time, even on a difficult day when he and only one other woman were working on a hall together. That grin of his, it was absolutely contagious. He was overworked, sometimes taking two shifts in a row just to put food on the table for his family. In the break room, he made his coworkers smile and laugh. He memorized everybody’s name, knew everybody’s story, and hoped the best for everyone.

One day, he was helping me and another student when we were struggling with a Depends change. “Like this,” he suggested, guiding our hands to the proper place where we’d get the most leverage when turning the patient on her side. “And hold the wipe like this. You can fold it afterwards like this. You try.” He was so patient, taking time from his already busy schedule (nursing homes are notoriously understaffed) to show two clueless students how to get it done. “It just takes time, lots of experience, which only comes with lots of mistakes. Stick with it,” he encouraged.

He left the room humming so he could go take out the trash.

At the end of my clinicals, my own precious grandmother got placed in the facility that I was working in. She was given a room in Roger’s hall, and I’d occasionally walk past her room to hear him singing to her while he changed her Depends or brought her breakfast. I could think of no better man to take care of my own grandmother.

The second man is a man named Joshua. He is a clerk at our local grocery store.

I first met Joshua when I was fifteen years old, shopping with my mom before Thanksgiving one year. He was smiling, joking with customers in front of us, who I could only assume he knew, and when it finally came to be our turn to check out, he asked us, “So what’ll it be today, beautiful ladies? Paper or plastic?” I grinned.

“Plastic,” I replied.

“Turkey Day plans?” he asked.

I quickly spouted off our plans.

“That sounds like so much fun! Any chance I could snag a spot at that table?” he asked, winking at us.

When he gave us our receipt, he asked me, “You want a sticker?”

“I’m fifteen,” I replied, laughing.

“Ah, who cares? You can never be too old for a sticker!”

I chuckled again. Who was this guy? “Sure, I’ll take a sticker.”

He placed a giant sticker in my hand, a cluster of grapes, with the caption, “You’re GRAPE!”

I left the store laughing, and I saved that sticker in my treasure box simply because I thought, “There’s a guy who knows how to take a job and turn it into something bigger than ‘work.’ He shines.”

I’ve thought about him now and again over the last several years (I’m twenty now), and I have even wondered, “Maybe he was just a new employee and he was filled with the ‘it’s-so-new-and-fun’ energy. Maybe now he isn’t so excited about his work,” I reasoned.

Well, I encountered Joshua three months ago at the same store, still working as a clerk, still making people laugh at the register. I began working with a client in my caregiver job who always wants me to do her shopping there, so I go about three or four times a week to get her cans of soup, a newspaper, or some cookies. Sometimes she comes with me and we get coffee together. Whenever we check out, no matter how long the line is, if Joshua is there, I intentionally wait in his line. He’ll see my familiar face in the back of the line and wave or say, “Hey you!” as if we were old friends. He cracks inside jokes with all the regulars, asks about their families with genuineness that I can only suspect is well-practiced or in fact, actually genuine, and from the sparkle in his eyes, I’ve come to believe that it is indeed sincere. Rarely, he’ll share a piece of information about his lovely wife or his children, but mostly, he invests himself whole-heartedly in the lives of others.

I’ve come to Joshua’s line many a time with a dull-uninteresting day under my belt, sometimes even a stressful one, only to leave with a smile and a bounce to my step and a reminder that life ain’t half as bad as it seems sometimes. Why send people to therapy when you could just send them to his checkout line at the grocery store? Buy a box of chocolate and pay a visit to the checkout. That’s my prescription!

He works his magic while still getting his job done. The worst thing besides getting stuck behind grandma on a single lane road is getting stuck at a register with a cashier who blabs away and scans your items slower than molasses pouring out of a jar on a cold morning. Joshua can talk, make you laugh, come across as casual and conversational, but I swear, his hands are moving at twenty miles an hour. He’s multitasking like a mother talking on the phone while she cooks dinner with a baby on her hip, and he’ll invest in your life without slowing it down, almost guaranteed.

My mom went to my little brother’s Christmas concert at our local tree lighting ceremony (apparently they sounded pretty bad; even he admitted it). She said that while she was there, she saw a man who she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but she knew him from somewhere. So, being her bubbly outgoing self, she approached him and said, “I think I know you from somewhere! It’s one of those times where I recognize you, but I just can’t place you.”

I’m sure he gets that a lot. When she realized who he was, she came home to relay the story to me.

“And guess who it was, Bec? Joshua from the grocery store! That guy is the best clerk I’ve ever met! Isn’t he great?”

“I know exactly who you’re talking about. I sometimes go wait in his line just to see him!” I responded. She didn’t even need to name the grocery store. I knew who we were talking about right away.

“Me too! I do the same thing!” my dad exclaimed, overhearing our conversation. “That guy is just great!”

Roger and Joshua both have jobs that some might frown upon from their lofty positions in life, and who may even offhandedly comment, “I could never do that job.” They may be right. With that attitude, they may not be able to do that job, or if they did, they may not be able to do it well.

Roger and Joshua do their jobs well, no matter how mundane or unappealing their tasks might seem. They pay attention to the details, and they aim for excellence. The do their jobs, but they don’t stop there. They rise above. They soar, in fact. Both of them affect the lives of those around them in ways that are contagious and almost impossible to ignore. If they’ve ever had bad days and had to go to work, which I think any man with a wife, kids, trying to pay the bills and put food on the table has probably had on occasion, they never once burden those around them with their worries, stresses, or heartaches. They still smile. They still make it their priority to care for those who don’t necessarily even ask for their care. They give a gift each time they put on their uniforms and set foot in their jobs. Their kindness, joy and brightness resonate in my heart long after I’ve left their presence.

I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” with my boyfriend last night. The Christmas season always causes me to come crawling back to those old traditional timeless classics with their incredible acting, beautiful plots, and good-ole’-days feel. I was watching as the main character is given the opportunity to see how the world would look like if he was never in it, and I thought of these two men. What would the world be like if they were not in it?

I’d like to not even try to imagine how that would play out. Both of those men have taught me a priceless lesson: No matter what task I have assigned to my lot in life, no matter how seemingly mundane, meaningless, or undesirable that task is, there is always, inexcusably, an opportunity to exude greatness, even if I’m never noticed. There’s no excuse for me to settle at mediocre and simply “get the job done.” There’s a way to move from a C to an A, to become a leader and a role model, no matter how “low” my position might seem. I know this, because Roger and Joshua have shown me this every single time I’ve ever interacted with either one of them.

I’ve never thanked Roger or Joshua for the differences they make in my life, like the passing of my Nursing Assistant exam, the fantastic care of my grandmother, the joy my workdays now bring me in my countless trips to the grocery store, or for the lesson I’ve learned about living life to the fullest.

So, thank you, both of you, for teaching me an invaluable lesson. I’m admiring of who you are as men, true gentlemen, if we were to still use that term in its classic sense, and for how you live your lives.

Your children have men for fathers who they can admire. The best parent is the one who lives out what he or she wants for his or her children. The best teachers are those who show the students, rather than tell the students, what they’d like the students to achieve. The best leaders are those who lead by example.

You might not be in the big spotlight, but that doesn’t make you any less great. You are heroes among us, quietly making a difference where others might not notice.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle

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