Archive for October 19th, 2021

Anthony Bourdain Empathy

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.

― Albert Schweitzer

The two quotes above are both about the gains of being in service to others though I imagine that Albert Schweitzer was not speaking about schlepping pork chops or pancakes to hungry folks in a restaurant. But maybe he was. And even if he wasn’t, the happiness gained from being in service that he describes goes hand in hand with the words above from late chef Anthony Bourdain.

I have often said that I thought everyone should be required to work as a server in a restaurant for at least a short period of time. There are so many lessons to be learned from the experience.

Empathy, as Bourdain points out, is one. I often dealt with people who were obviously down and out or going through trying times. It was hard to not put yourself in their shoes or at least make their time with you comfortable. 

Humility, for me, was a big one. There was nothing more centering than going from an opening filled with compliments and praise on a Friday evening to pouring coffee for a hungover trucker on a Saturday morning. Puts everything in perspective in quick fashion.

You quickly learn that the world does not revolve around you.

That brings us to restraint. You have to learn to turn a deaf ear to insults and barbs then deliver the same service to that offending person that you give to all. Restraint also keeps you from making a kneejerk reaction. I had a diner one  morning who was as rude and unpleasant as could be, snapping at me with every interaction. I felt like snapping back but retrained myself and just did my job as efficiently as possible so that I wouldn’t have to have any real problems with him.

Later, after he finished his meal and went to the rest room, he called me over to his table and apologized for his behavior. He had just been released that morning from the hospital and was not feeling well at all. He wasn’t sure about the outlook for his future and had taken it ut on me. I told him I understood then we chatted for a bit, me learning that he had been on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. 

I was glad I hadn’t reacted to our initial interaction.

That brings us to consistency and endurance, two qualities that allow a server to be successful, which is to make a living wage since the base pay was and is well below the minimum wage. There were people who were notorious bad tippers and when you had the misfortune of them ending up in your station, you still had to give them exactly the same level of service as your best tippers. Inconsistency can be contagious, in my opinion, so its easier to just do the same rather than try to alter your routine to deprive someone.

Then there is, of course, teamwork. You learn that even though you might be a highly capable server, you need the assistance of a variety of people– cooks, bus people, dishwashers, and other servers– in order to be successful. 

You also learn that you even if you are exceptionally good at your job, you are not indispensable. The world will go on without you. Food will still emerge from the kitchen and people will enjoy their meals without you. This probably belongs above under the humility label but I am writing off the cuff here and am not going back now.

The main lesson is probably that there is great gratification in serving others. Making a meal pleasant and seamless isn’t life-altering in any way but to make someone else comfortable and at ease for even a short time is something that pleases me.

It’s a small bit of evidence of humanity.

And in these days, when so many folks have lost sight of their humanity and its accompanying empathy, maybe we could all use a reminder that there is happiness to be found in service to others, to paraphrase Mr. Schweitzer.

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