by Father Mark Goldasich
“So, are you just beat?”
It was a simple question addressed to a waitress.
On a recent sultry summer night, I was at the Cheesecake Factory on the Plaza in Kansas City, Mo. I was seated in the restaurant’s outside courtyard, right next to its huge fountain. It was still hot, but not unbearable, and the sound of the splashing water was refreshing.
The waitress had a pleasant, but tired, smile. She seemed almost relieved at my question and said, “Yes, I’m exhausted. I’ve been here today since we opened.”
It turns out she’d spent her whole shift working the courtyard. That meant experiencing hours in the blazing heat, carrying heavy and hot plates of food, constantly rushing in and out of air conditioning, standing on a hard surface, etc.
“And,” she continued, “I feel so bad because I just really messed up with that table. (She indicated one right next to mine. ) Sometimes, you just can’t seem to do anything right. They’re visiting from Germany, and they asked for bread and I forgot that and . . . . well, nothing went right for them.”
As a former waiter myself, I felt for her. “Hey, it happens,” I said. “It’s OK. Hang in there.”
I’m happy to report that I had a great experience that night. The waitress dropped by often to keep my water glass filled and to make sure that all was fine with the food. (It was: The chicken di pana was delicious.) It also seemed like she’d gotten her “second wind” from our short conversation and was going about her duties with a lighter heart.
Sitting there, I thought back to a story I’d told a couple of weeks ago at Mass. It was about a little boy talking to his busy mother.
At one point in their conversation, the boy says, “Mama, please listen to me. But this time, do so with your eyes.”
That comment stopped the mother in her tracks. Although I’m sure that she was listening to her son, she was also probably multitasking: cooking dinner, folding laundry, or answering e-mails. The little boy was asking his mom to do something that is getting harder and harder in our busy world: pause, focus and be present.
It seems to me that we’re all trying to cram too much into too little time. The result is that we’re constantly impatient, scattered and stressed out. This feeling, in turn, frequently translates into rude behavior. We begin to turn people into “things” — “stuff” that we can manipulate and abuse according to our whims.
The little boy in the story was reminding his mom that he wasn’t a “thing,” just some background noise like a blaring TV or radio. He was a person, with feelings, deserving of attention and respect.
You know, there might be a hidden blessing in this oppressive heat that we’ve been experiencing: It can force us to change our usual way of doing things and rediscover the pleasure and necessity of pausing, focusing and being present.
A handy place to begin is by listening “with our eyes.” Looking at people that you are conversing with is one of the highest complements you can give them. Your attentiveness says that they are what’s most important in the world at that time. Focusing not only honors the person you are with, it helps us to truly live in the present moment.
Actually, that’s what prayer is all about: taking time to pause, focus and listen with our eyes. If we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t do this very often . . . or very well. For example, when we come to Mass on the weekends, don’t we usually bring our cell phones with us? And even though we have them set on vibrate, aren’t we distracted when we feel them buzz with a phone call, some e-mail or a text? Aren’t we tempted to immediately check out of praying and check in on the message that just arrived? Is it any wonder, then, that we feel that God is distant, our faith is stagnant and our relationships are unfulfilling?
Most of us don’t need any more distractions. I’ve started to leave my cell phone at home when I’m celebrating Mass. Sure, it’s a little bit inconvenient when people want to make an appointment after Mass, but going “phoneless” gives me the freedom to pause, focus and be truly present. I’ve found that when you really pay attention to others, it pays off. They respond in kind — and kindly — to you.
And that’s what is so funny about this business of listening with your eyes: It spreads and actually changes your heart and soul — and the world — as well.