A Priest on a 'Plane

A few weeks ago I sat next to a priest on a night flight to Europe. He was a really nice man, and told me lots of fascinating, (and some heart-breaking) stories about the thirty years he had spent in South Africa since he was sent from Italy by his church. He had worked in many parishes, mostly in rural areas or townships, and had spent the last few years in a small industrial town.

Apparently, once every three years the church allows priests a chance to go home and visit their families on a fully paid trip, and this was his journey. He told me about how his family and friends from a village in northern Italy send money for the needs of the communities where he had spent his time, and they were always excited to see him and hear about what happened in “Africa” since his last visit. His excitement and passion were quite clear as he told me about all of the wonderful work that he had done – all done with the greatest humility, and never taking any credit for himself, of course.

Building, always building, whether it was a new church, a school, a feeding scheme, a clinic, getting a choir going, starting a library, or somehow helping people to better their lives – this was his life. Although he never said it, what struck me was that he got paid very little for what was obviously a tough job with really long hours.

And he just loved it. He radiated happiness

Eventually, after our typical airplane dinner, (which I just didn’t dare moan about because he seemed to think it was a feast,) we said “good night” and settled in for the rest of the journey to Europe.

But I just couldn’t sleep. Here was this man, a few years older than me, who owned practically nothing, who often got no thanks or financial reward for his efforts, who stayed as a guest in other people’s homes when he travelled, and relied on others to take him everywhere, who lived in often hard conditions – and who was far happier and more content that I had felt for many, many years.

Now please don’t get me wrong here. I am not having a mid-life crisis of conscience, nor am I ready to join a monastery, (although it would probably prolong my stressful life by a few more years if I did!) And I’m certainly not advocating that we all give up the great material things that we worked so hard to achieve to work for an organisation that does good for others.

But what I can tell you is that as I reflected late into the night on his enthusiasm and sense of anticipation, on the obvious joy and delight in serving others, on his peaceful and appreciative demeanour, that I came to an important insight into our not-so-different business world: doing something nice for other people – especially for customers and colleagues – can give each of us just as much pleasure as this priest on the ‘plane. This is the essence of customer care.

Looking after customers is certainly more difficult than not looking after customers. If you ignore them, or do the absolute minimum to survive in your job, you will certainly have a less stressed day, and conserve your energy for non-work stuff.

But we don’t look after customers because the boss says so, or because it’s company policy. People don’t pay attention and go the extra mile because the company will be more profitable, or because there will be less complaints, or because the business will get good word-of-mouth publicity.

No, we do it because of the positive effect that it has on us.

When we go out of our way to do something special for a customer, when we put in a little bit of extra effort to help them, or to make their lives a little easier, when we treat them with a little bit more kindness and respect, or make them laugh or smile a little, somehow it makes a difference to us too. The gratitude it inspires in them is good for us too.

A few years ago a magazine published research on 7000 people done over a nine year period that showed that people who were single, had few friends, and shunned community organisations had more than twice the mortality rate of the others. Why is this so? Because by helping people you inspire their gratitude and affection, and the warmth that results somehow helps to protect us from stress. So if you don’t do it for any other reason, do it so that you live longer!

Of course, it may involve some risk, making the choice to reach out to others. But that always reminds me of a poem that comes from William Arthur Ward. It was called The Dilemma and went like this:

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental
To reach out to another is to risk involvement
To expose your feelings is to risk rejection
To place your dreams before a crowd is to risk ridicule
To love is to risk not being loved in return
To go forward in the face of overwhelming odds is to risk failure
But risks must be taken, because the greatest risk is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
They may avoid suffering, pain and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow or love…
Only a person who takes risks is free
Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.
The pessimist complains about the wind;
The optimist expects it to change;
And the realist adjusts the sails.

Educator and author Leo Buscaglia said in a video that he once had a chance to interview the Dalai Lama of Tibet, and asked him what was the purpose of life. His response was, “The purpose of life is to help others.” And then after a slight pause, he added, “And if you can’t help them, will you at least please not hurt them?”

I couldn’t agree more. And I’ll bet you anything that my new friend and fellow traveller would also agree.


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