CHARLESTON, S.C.—I realized my mistake as soon as I walked through the door.
Clusters of students from the College of Charleston were sitting in the waiting room of the city’s traffic and parking office. The fall semester at the college had recently begun, and about 10 students were in the beehive-like governmental complex to apply for residential decals so they could park their cars downtown. The normal handful of random citizens was also there, waiting.
I had come to get a parking sticker for my mother’s car. Too bad we had not taken care of this during the summer, when the office would have been less crowded. I felt a flush of resentment, then told myself — let it go. No need to get worked up about why that did not happen. I considered coming back another day, but I was already over there with the required paperwork. I decided to submit to my fate, take a number, and wait.
However, the system in the waiting room was not entirely in order. The dispenser that spits out numbers for the queue was out of paper. What am I supposed to do? I wondered.
One of the female students noticed my hesitancy and spoke up: “There are little cards with numbers sitting inside.”
I opened the mouth of the dispenser to see a stack of blue cards. I withdrew the top card: No. 70.
The digital display on the wall flashed No. 52. That meant 18 numbers were ahead of mine, but there were only about 14 people waiting. “I got No. 70, and that doesn’t seem quite right,” I reported to the girl who had been helpful.
“Some of those cards are not in order,” she said. “You might want to look through the box.” Several other students laughed in confirmation.
Before I could review the numbers, a middle-aged woman beat me to the punch. (She had come into the office several minutes after me, apparently without taking a number.) After hearing the conversation, she scuttled over and opened the dispenser, searched through the stack and selected a number. When she was done, I looked through the remaining cards: none was lower than 70. Curious, I asked the woman what she had drawn out. Reluctantly she held up No. 69.
I could tell by the annoyed yet guilty look on her face, she was not going to offer to switch. How crazy is that? My son had accompanied me to the office and was currently outside parking, so the line jumper was inconveniencing two of us. Normally I would have spoken up, as most folks in Charleston are willing to do what’s fair, especially if you make a polite request. However, the woman was bony, her face haggard, and her demeanor suggested weariness.
The Holy Spirit prompted me toward stillness. So I said nothing and sat down. The woman looked relieved. She moved to the far side of the room and took a seat.
Time passed. I listened as the two clerks called out numbers — 53, 54, 55, 56 — and processed the requests. Before long my son Benton joined me in the waiting room, but I did not mention any of the drama to him. He saw the length of the line and decided to wait for me outside. The line moved along at a slow but steady pace as I sat quietly.
To my surprise, I was not irritated by the 25-minute wait or the woman’s breech of conventional courtesy. Quite the contrary. I felt blessed. The Holy Spirit had equipped me to react to the line jumper in meekness. Meekness is one of those “virtues” which most of us neither understand nor admire. It is certainly not my normal response: I know how to stand up for myself. My lamb-like acceptance was newborn, sired by my regular practice of interior stillness before God in the early mornings.
But this stillness before the Word will exert its influence upon the whole day. If we have learned to be silent before the Word, we shall also learn to manage our silence and our speech during the day.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Modern Spirituality Series
My daily half hour of meditation, also known as Centering Prayer, has changed my perception of ordinary life, fostering patience where previously there might have been frustration. Another fruit of this daily silence is the gift of insight. Often it arrives as a sudden realization, the scales falling from my eyes, allowing me to see things from a more highly evolved point of view.
As I sat, my mind received the reason why I had been kept from asking to switch numbers: the woman already knew that she was breaking the rules. She didn’t need me to point it out to her. In fact, she needed to conduct this small moral struggle on her own.
By not staking a claim to go first, I had given the woman space to make her decision about whether or not to do the right thing. With this clarity, I found myself hoping that she would turn to the better part of her nature even now — not to help me, but to help her.
“Number 69,” the clerk called.
I did not allow myself to turn around to watch her get up. My shoulders and neck felt tense with hopeful expectation. Would she walk over and offer to let me go in her place? Would she follow the Voice Within to do unto others as she would have done unto her?
Moments later, I heard her talking at the clerk’s window, going about her business. Despite my prayers for her to be victorious in this small arena, the woman had acted in service of her own interests. There was no moral victory. I felt my spirit fall, like the sudden drop on a roller coaster.
Yet the Lord will grant this woman another opportunity, on another day. He’s gracious like that, setting up selfish vs. unselfish choices before us as many times as it takes until we finally clear the hurdle. I prayed that, in her next round, she would prevail. At least, by God’s grace planted in me during Centering Prayer, I had respected her right to grapple with her moral dilemma in silence.