The other morning I was in the McDonald’s drive-through to get breakfast. It was a two-lane drive-through, and sure enough, my car and someone else’s tried to pull up to the payment window at the same time. Who goes first?
We both rolled down our windows. The other driver was a young woman, about 25 years old, with a small child in the back. Her car was in poor condition. She had a tattoo.
She asked, ‘who ordered first?’
I said, ‘I don’t know, ladies first.’
She said, ‘I won’t argue,’ and went.
When it was my turn to pay, the employee at the window said, ‘That young woman paid for you.’
I pulled up next to where she was waiting for her order and said, ‘Thanks.’
‘You’re welcome,’ she said with a smile, and I drove off.
I was touched. However, I felt just a little guilty too.
It is very easy to put people in boxes or categories. The McDonalds I frequent is in a poorer neighborhood. There is crime and substance abuse in the area.
From appearances, the young woman seemed to have had a rough life, low on money, perhaps a single mother, what have you. It is easy to focus on what seems to be the limitations and shortcomings of others. Then she bought me breakfast. When I thanked her, her deed, her response, and her smile made me really appreciate her goodness. She possessed a certain nobility about her.
This experience reminded me that people are fundamentally good. That is not merely a quaint observation; it is a theological truth. Yes, we are sinners, we have our weaknesses, and there are some people actively pursuing evil. However, prior to and more important than our sins is the fundamental goodness that God has placed in each one of us. That goodness is more ‘us’ than our sin is.
I have noticed that even when people are struggling with sin, they come alive when given the opportunity to do good, to have that interior goodness recognized and affirmed. While we should clearly speak the truth about sin, we frequently achieve better results by inviting people to do good. We introduce them to Jesus who forgives their sins, but who also believes in the goodness that he placed in them. Jesus us the first to call forth that goodness.
We must train ourselves to discover that goodness in all people, and cheer them on.
Our society is quite polarized, and countless people feel very alone. To give and receive the smallest of gestures of kindness will go a long way to healing those divisions. Hopefully, such gestures can lead to friendships and a renewal of community that we all need.
In his Encyclical, God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI said that man’s needs always go beyond the material, we all need ‘loving personal concern’ [n. 28].
It was a small gesture, but I am sincerely grateful for the ‘loving personal concern’ that this young woman showed in buying me breakfast.
Fr. John Bullock, LC