I had a personal experience years ago that taught me how much joy can be had in doing the work of a peacemaker. The life lesson came about by happenstance, and I still think of the whole incident as a gift, pure and simple. I don’t believe it was a test, nor did I need to learn the value of reconciliation. (I already knew it.) I think it was simply an opportunity to demonstrate a higher law and, as a result, to see blessings distributed all around. Those blessings are still with me today.
When it happened, I was working with a man named Robert on the loading dock of a thrift store. Our duties included handling the daily influx of second-hand furniture and other used consumer products, which we either discarded, set aside for repair or priced and put out on the floor. Since the store was owned and operated by a non-profit organization, it was plagued by the kinds of inefficiencies and general ineptitude that most for-profit enterprises seem to avoid. Our work was brisk, demanding and frequently frustrating. We were constantly encountering the shortcomings of our low-budget operation, from which we were nevertheless expected to extract a good result (and usually did).
In an age of adulterated characters and people without convictions, Robert was an amazing individual. He was highly unique, with a rare mixture of attributes and characteristics (most of them admirable), and very much his own man. He was opinionated, unwavering, blunt and carried himself without any indication of personal vulnerability. He was what many people would call “macho,” although it was clear to me that he was this way because of his intrinsic values and for the purpose of self-preservation, not out of excessive concern for others’ opinion of him. He looked like Teddy Roosevelt without the social graces. His glasses didn’t suggest delicateness as they do with most men. Even when he smiled, his visage hinted at an iron will. He was large and muscular and gave no suggestion that he was the slightest bit squeamish about the prospect of physical conflict.
Robert worked very hard and almost religiously embraced skill and professionalism on the job. He despised sloth and hypocrisy. He must have gnashed his teeth when he thought about the decline of the American work ethic and the ensuing hemorrhage of standards he fought so hard to maintain. His stride was almost heroic, in spite of the fact that it was precisely these convictions that made him almost unbearable to work with much of the time. He held himself personally responsible for salvaging what was flowing out of the sieve of our dissipated society, like the proverbial boy with his finger in the dyke.
Robert had survived crushing tragedy. Many years before, in an altercation outside a southern California bar, he had unintentionally shot a man while they were wrestling over a firearm the other man had reached for in the fracas. The man, who was gravely wounded, turned out to be an undercover police officer. Robert contended bitterly that he had not identified himself as an officer until after the smoke cleared. Nevertheless, following a brief investigation and trial, Robert was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 10-20 years, a lenient sentence the judge handed down in consideration of the fact that Robert had performed life-saving first aid on the man before police and paramedics arrived. He served eight years in San Quentin, a maximum-security facility famous as a repository for California’s worst violent criminals and sporting the largest death-row unit in the Western Hemisphere. Much of his sentence in the 150-year-old institution was spent in solitary confinement because of fights with other inmates. In his own words, he “walked in a man and walked back out a man. ”
After such a life-changing experience, Robert was remarkably calm and rational, though there was a visible hardness to him. Through everything that had happened to him, he had somehow retained the drive to succeed, to fight a longstanding battle with alcoholism, to care for his wife of many years (whom he spoke fondly of) and, most amazingly, to seek a stronger relationship with Christ. I learned all this during a single conversation I had with him one bizarre afternoon. It was a talk that would never have happened under normal circumstances.
It happened this way: one day we were moving furniture up from the basement when I asked Robert if I could usurp the elevator for an urgent trip. I had the cage unlocked (a secure storage area) and felt pressed to finish moving items from it and lock it back up quickly. Robert was right in the middle of a task, but he acquiesced anyway. He didn’t understand that I was proposing to tie up the elevator for a fair period of time.
When I finally brought the elevator back down to the basement after ten or fifteen minutes, Robert was furious. He had been standing around fuming for what had probably seemed like an hour. He knew nothing about the compromised security of the cage, which had lent special urgency to my task. In his mind, I had committed one of the more intolerable workplace sins — pronouncing his task less important than mine by imperiously shoving him aside, apparently for my convenience. As soon as the elevator reached the bottom and he saw the whites of my eyes, Robert pointed at me and made a grim pronouncement about my character — a single truculent statement that was sprinkled with choice San Quentin terms.
My actions were no different from what occurs every day in warehouses all over the country, but this was a man of rigid principles who was old enough to remember the way things used to be. He had worked enough jobs over the years to see the U.S. workplace — the tightly ordered, rock-hard envy of the world — crumble into a mess of forgotten industry standards and drug-addled neglect. I was the latest example of the creeping slovenliness that was ruining his beloved country.
When I tried to apologize an hour later, he told me acidly that he didn’t want to talk to me. I berated myself for not giving him more time to cool down. A few days later, I tried again, deliberately removing any timidity or hesitation from my voice. I tried to sound like a strong, affable site foreman. He was calmer this time, and his conscience was beginning to work on him, but he wasn’t budging yet. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’m not ready yet,” he told me, walking on. At least he wasn’t spitting epithets at me anymore. But it was to be a long haul. Over the next few weeks, I gave him his space, not even speaking to him directly. I showed him every courtesy, but I knew better than to grovel. Robert detested weakness, and any scraping on my part would imply that I was of low character by my own admission. I sent resolute conciliatory signals toward him. I left anonymous Kraft caramels on his desk. I waited for my opportunity.
For some reason I still don’t understand, I felt strongly that I had to get him to forgive me. Perhaps it was simply the challenge of it; Robert was the kind of tough guy who could reject a person permanently over things like this. There was an anger inside him that burned perpetually against everyone (like me) who was helping to ruin the world. I wanted to force him to take me out of that category. I was in a passion to prevail against his unforgiveness.
It wasn’t as though I had some important lesson to learn about reconciliation. I knew well that God requires people to do everything in their power to mend interpersonal breaches. (“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” -Rom. 12:18.) God wants us to seek reconciliation with single-minded purpose, with extravagant forbearance and generosity, quite without any consideration of our own feelings and sensibilities. But in this particular situation, I felt a special urgency to make peace, perhaps the more because Robert was essentially good, in human terms. His aim was to bring about a good result, no matter how misguided his self-reliance was.
During the standoff, tensions were escalated when, still angry, Robert complained to the management that I was receiving special computer privileges in the front office. I had covered the phones for an entire week and had taken advantage of my proximity to a computer to get some work done on a manuscript I was writing. No one had any problem with it; one supervisor even commented that it looked right to have someone typing busily in the office when the phones weren’t ringing. The best part was that even after I wasn’t covering phones anymore, everyone had become accustomed to seeing me on the computer, so I retained my computer privileges during down times. But when Robert made his complaint, I was brought into the manager’s office and told that I would have to stop using the computer. “If we let you do it, we have to let everyone do it,” he said.
I was hot. Not only had this man rebuffed my overtures when I had done nothing wrong to begin with, now here he was getting privileges taken away from me. I vented for a minute on the manager (who was sympathetic), but nothing was reversed. I had to deal with my anger. I knew God was calling me to overlook Robert’s offense and keep pressing for reconciliation. The situation wore on.
Our crew was fed lunch by the company every day, and the dishes we used became the responsibility of a rotating portion of the store crew — a group of four men who washed the dishes for a week until the next crew came on line. About three weeks after the elevator incident, a fresh list hit the wall. Robert and I were both on it, put together randomly out of a pool of thirty employees. I groaned at the development.
The mood was tense for the first two days. The irony of the situation was crystal clear to each of us. I was afraid that our being jammed into the tiny kitchen together every day for a week would make matters worse. Robert just seemed disgusted. As we squared off in the small dish pit, it quickly became apparent that we had very different ideas about how dishes should be washed. We began waging a silent war of attrition over procedure. Given my aim to make peace with him, I capitulated on several points. However, he had a regular practice of putting the dish soap in the water long before the sink was full. The result was always an eight-inch layer of suds on top of the water that sent flecks of foam flying everywhere when the pots and pans were scrubbed. Getting an occasional splash of dish soap in your mouth for a good reason is acceptable. When there is no legitimate reason for it, it becomes a point of contention. It was more than I could agree to. I peacefully took every opportunity to draw the dish water myself and thus assume control of when the soap was added. In order to do this, I would cut my meal short to get into the kitchen early. But Robert began doing the same thing, mainly because he couldn’t bear the thought of someone arriving more promptly than he did. Soon we were both gobbling down our lunches frantically, struggling to get into the kitchen first for dish duty.
After three or four days, something began to break. Both of us had conducted ourselves peacefully, preventing any real hostility from developing. I believe that my minuscule procedural “sins” were eclipsed in Robert’s mind by my obvious work ethic. Not only was I prompt and hardworking, I didn’t leave until every possible detail had been attended to — and until verbal agreement was reached between us that our duties had been completed. I knew how serious he was about his work ethic, and I didn’t want him to have any doubts about mine, both for reasons of general pride and also because I calculated that gaining his respect would expedite the process of reconciliation I was trying to accomplish. By the middle of the week, he was laughing at my insistence on foam limitation procedures, and I knew the cold war was ending. Soon he was speaking to me with warmth and respect. By the end of the week, while the foam flew, I was hearing the story of his conviction and incarceration. Even more amazingly, he began telling me about struggles he was having in his marriage. I hadn’t just regained the lost ground; I had gotten all the way in.
I wonder how Robert is doing today. I pray for him, asking God to soften the barriers in his heart — walls he built out of necessity in order to survive the hellish years he spent behind bars. I ask God to heal his marriage and to strengthen his relationship with Christ. I haven’t seen Robert since those few months when we worked together, but before he left for places unknown, I asked him to write a note in my Bible for sentimental reasons. I was surprised when he agreed. I still read it from time to time:
I wish you the very best. God be with you. Love ya,