On Thursday afternoon, I stopped by the grocery store to grab bananas, bread and the ice cream on sale this week. I had worked all day and was tired so I was hoping to run in and run out -- but, as we all know, the quicker you want your grocery store experience to be, the slower the checkout line will go.
Resigning myself to a wait, I began texting a friend.
I thought it was the customer in front of me taking forever to check out, but as Joe the cashier greeted me, I realized he was the cause of the slowdown. After asking me if I had found everything I was looking for, he passed each item under the scanner with great deliberation and thoughtfulness -- checking to be sure that it was ringing up at the correct price and making comments like, "Oh, you saved $3.98! You were wise to buy that. This is a good place to save money on bananas, you know. Two cents less per pound than the competition."
Considering Joe's thoughtful approach to his job and my groceries, I couldn't stay impatient. I stopped texting and gave him my undivided attention. Stooped at the register, he was clearly working hard at an age when many of his peers had moved on to the golf course or bridge clubs. I'm sure he was tired and ready to go home, just like I was. Yet he rang up my ice cream and bananas with the dignity of a lawyer addressing the jury and the meticulousness of a pharmacist filling a prescription.
Labor Day, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, celebrates "the social and economic achievements of American workers." Some attribute its founding to Peter J. McGuire, who suggested a day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."
Specifically, this day celebrates the individuals in the United States who work and the value and dignity of every worker. Not to get apocalyptic, but we live in an age in which there is often a fine line between workers and machines. I do most of my banking at an ATM, use self-check-out when it's available and get book recommendations not from a book seller but from an entity called Amazon. With so much automation in life, we can sometimes place humans on the same level as the machines that help us throughout the day.
My encounter with Joe at the grocery store reminded me that human beings are never a means to an end (and a "means to an end" in this case would signify that Joe was simply there so that I could get my groceries and go home), but that all people deserve respect and dignity simply because they are people created by God, in his image. Not for what he was doing for me, but for who he is.
As students return to school, they do so with lofty goals of becoming professionals: doctors, lawyers, teachers (and, I'm sure, youth ministers). Goals of affluence and success are not bad -- they can push us to go beyond what we thought we were capable of and lead us to accomplish great things for ourselves and the world. However, the dignity of each person does not rest in these goals being actualized, but simply in who they are.
Joe reminded me that as Labor Day approaches, not only should I put away my white pants and shoes, but I should resolve to notice, respect and honor those I encounter every day who work, and see not just a service being done, but a fellow human who deserves my respect.