crucible (noun): a place or occasion of severe test or trial
For the past three months, I have been writing this weekly blog about joy. So, I thought it might be time for me to check in with myself and with all of you. A progress report, so to speak. . .
From time to time, I hear a nasty voice in my head that says, “Who cares about your silly practice of joy, what you do or don’t do, your insignificant stories about your little life? Look at what’s happening all around — horrible things. Why does this, why do you even matter?"
We have all heard those unkind voices, haven't we? The ones that make us doubt our paths, question the validity of our practices, demean and belittle us into believing we don’t matter.
Until I started this daily practice of joy, mine could be pretty darn beligerent, demanding my attention on a daily basis, and often getting it. So much so that despair became a much more constant companion than joy.
Its justifications were myriad: Just open a newspaper or turn on the TV. Joy? It said. Joy is a pipe dream. Give it up!
Over the past three months, however, I have begun to prove to myself something quite different. I have seen not only that joy is no illusion, but actually that joy is utterly necessary. I can feel how commiting to a daily practice of joy has cracked open my heart and made me much more present in my life. I know, beyond a shadow of doubt now, that practicing joy has completing altered how I move through the world, and what I am able to give back to it.
I have experienced many profound examples of this in my life, but I am only going to share one with you today.
Here is one way that having a daily practice of joy has changed my life and benefitted others.
I have long recognized that one my greatest spiritual trials — my almost-weekly walk on coals — occurs whenever I have to call customer service.
Now I consider myself someone who moves through the world with compassion, has a very slow trigger to anger, and who daily works on releasing judgment and replacing it with lovingkindness.
Until I have to call customer service. Then I become someone I hardly know. And that person is not pretty!
Sure, we’ve all had multiple frustrating experiences calling a customer service person, who has been given a very narrow script outlining what he or she can or can’t offer us as a solution to whatever problem we have.
Over the years, myy experiences have often played out something like this:
After going through five minutes of phone prompts, which force me to choose a numerical option that marginally relates to my issue at hand, or worse, speaking my question to a voice recognition application that more often than not replies, “I am having trouble understanding you. . .”, eventually I get to real person, who asks me to answer questions I have spent the past five minutes answering already to a bewildering variety of articificial intelligences.
Five minutes more later, more often than not, I am told that I have ended up in the wrong department, but that I can easily be transfered to the right department. And before my sob of Noooooo! can escape my lips, I hear that horrible, hope-robbing click, leaving me on hold listening to excruciatingly bad music from a decade long long ago for oh another twenty minutes or so.
And that’s the good alternative. Because more frequently, it seems, I am disconnected. . .forcing me to start the whole nightmare all over again.
Finally, sometimes after what seems like an hour of virtul torture, I get someone on the phone, whose voice resembles no voice I have ever heard driving through any of the 47 United States I have visited nor any of the many foreign countries I have had the good fortune of exploring.
I call it the customer service voice, and what I picture is a floating island somewhere far far away — sort of like the one in Dr. Doolittle. Except in this Orwellian version, thousands of little people are trapped in tenement-like buildings, filled with maze-like warrens constructed of flimsy felt-and-metal partitions inside which are empty army issue desks outfitted only with vintage phones collected from long-defunct call centers attached to plastic headphones. In some Sartrian hell, unfortunate souls have been doomed to spend eternity listening to the ridiculous problems of privileged people like me, who have far too many things that never seem to work.
They are all given the same script, so the conversations almost always begin something like this:
Me: I’m calling because my printer won’t print.
Customer Service Person: You are calling because your printer won’t print.
Me: Yes. That’s just what I said. I am calling because my printer won’t print.
Customer Service Person: I see. You are calling because your printer won’t print.
At this point, I feel that I (too cast my literary references a bit wider) have entered into a nightmarish world that even Kafka could’t have imagined, and from which it is doubtful I will ever emerge.
But because I need my printer to print, I persist.
Persisting generally means troubleshooting, i.e., running through a series of tried-and-true steps that generally will fix any technological problem.
Now, since I’ve had more technological problems than I care to ennumerate over the past few decades, I’ve already tried all these methods, which is why I am calling customer service.
But my floating-island-living, headphone-wearing, unrecognizable-accented customer service person has one job description, and one only: Stick to your script.
This means that we spend another twenty minutes in a dialogue something like this:
Me: I tried all those methods before getting on the phone.
Customer Service Person: You need to shut down your device.
Me: I did that.
Customer Service Person: Please shut down your device.
Me: I already did that.
Customer Service Person: Could you please shut down your device.
I wish I could tell you that twenty years of spiritual practice make all my responses reflect the peace and lovingkindness I seem to be able to practice, oh say, with my dogs. But sadly that is far from the trust.
By this point, I have become a raving bitch. I am fairly slobbering at the mouth and shaking as I demand to speak to a supervisor. And that printer I was so eager to persist in fixing, it is perilously close to being hurled over the edge of my loft office and smashed into smithereens below.
But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is that I have developed a kind of Pavlovian behavior that, until I began my daily practice of joy, I seemed utterly unable to control. You see, this kind of ontologically enervating exchange has happened so often that now just dialing 1-800-anything has come to have an instantaneous Incredible Hulk effect on me — transforming me from a generally nice, kind, polite, and respectful person, into a nasty, hormonal, raging, judgmental, just-plain-mean jerk before I even hear the first automated prompt. Truly.
For years, I have been trying to change this. Because if calling customer service is a nightmare on the best of days, when you feel like an eight-foot-tall homicidal maniac with green skin, bulging veins, blood-shot eyes, and her hair on fire, well, it’s just not good. Not good at all.
For years, I had tried all kinds of spiritual practice. I recongized that these people had thankless jobs in which they were essentially powerless to effect any real solutions and tried feeling empathy for their plight. I tried feeling grateful for their service. And it helped. . .to a degree.
I thanked them for helping me. I tried asking them how they were, which always elicited a surprised, 'Good. Thank you for asking.' (But I mean how good can you really be chained to a 1990 phone on a floating island!)
Nothing really worked. The moment the next technological pseudo-disaster occurred and I dialed 1-800. . .out came my Inner Hulk.
When I was a kid, I loved to read books in which characters had to go through vision quests or challenges to prove their mettle. Over the last decade, I have come to feel that walking through fire, spending weeks alone in the wilderness, or retrieving a golden chalice seem like child’s play compared to maneuvering through the mucky soul-killing morass of modern customer service. I’d like to see Sir Lancelot not lose his cool after four hours of Muzak, hold time, transfers to supposed experts, and he still can’t get the visor down on his helmet! They say chivalry is a lost art. I’d be surprised if dealing with customer service hasn’t been one of the major contributors to its demise.
Certainly for me, customer service has been my own spiritual crucible.
Recently I changed my company’s financial software to a cloud-based system that automatically connects to my bank. For the first month, I was ecstatic about the ease with which my fiscal life seemed to be flowing. And then it happened. The dreaded technological vortex opened up and sucked my life away: My bank asked me to change my password, and nothing has worked correctly since.
I have spent close to fifteeen hours over the last two months trying to fix what is broken. I have conferenced the bank and the software company. I have been escalated so often that I now am orbiting somwhere in outer space. On Thursday, I discovered that I had lost weeks worth of data, which affected all of my bank accounts. I will be spending a large part of my Sunday attempting to reconstruct and repiar those issues.
Am I happy about this turn of events? Obviously not. I mean, it’s still not even working.
But I am overJOYed about one thing. I decided to bring my daily practice of joy to work to this experience. It changed everything.
I began with the practice I wrote about in my second blog: Laughter.
One of the first things that happens on a customer service call is the requisite exchange of information.
Customer Service Person: Hello. Am I speaking to Victoria Price?
Customer Service Person: Can you confirm your name by spelling it?
Old Me: $*#*% You just said my #$^%*@ name! It’s Victoria Price!
New Me: V as in Victoria. I as in Ice Cream. C as in Charlie. T as in Tomato. O as in Orange. R as in Robert Redford. I as in more Ice Cream — strawberry this time. The last one was chocolate. A as in Angelina Jolie. (With any luck, one of these has elicited a chuckle. But because you never know just how much access to information about the outside world the floating-island people have, I don’t get discouraged if not.) P as in Potato. My mom would be horrified about that. She thought that if you looked at a potato you gained 50 pounds. Potato was kind of a dirty word in my family. R, well I already used Robert Redford. Who’s your favorite actor beginning with R? This can either take them aback or be the final icebreaker. I. Ice Cream again. You just can’t have too much ice cream. For me it’s chocolate. Are you a chocolate person, or maybe something more exotic? Mango Caramel? By this point, hopefully, we are chatting and laughing, and feel, at least like we’re on the same side.
Things shift. With each question, they recognize that they are probably going to receive an unusual answer, and they loosen up. They begin to treat me like a person, instead of their problem of the moment. And I, well, I am actually having fun! Imagine that!
Now, when they have to put me on hold to check with an expert or supervisor, they apologize. At which point I say, and actually mean — No problem at all. You’re the one helping me.
However the phone calls end, I know we both feel better than when we started.
Has this solved my financial software issue? Not yet.
BUT. . .I get my calls returned. The same person with whom I have spoken actually calls me to give me progress reports. AND. . .far better than that, I no longer am the Incredible Hulk. I’m me, and I’m a joyful me. Do I really want to spend part of my Sunday reconstructing lost financial data? No! But would I rather be doing it as the Hulk or as the person who writes this blog? Easy answer.
I began this blog with the question of whether joy was even an appropriate response to all of the horrors around the world. In light of that question, perhaps this example seems utterly ridiculous. How can my healing of my customer service “issues” matter one lick in the face of global attrocities and environmental disasters?
Whenever most of us read about these things, we are probably torn between two impulses — burying our heads in the collective sand and trying not to think about it OR asking ‘What can I do? How can I help?'
I love this quote by Rabindranath Tagore: "I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy."
The only way to heal ourselves and our planet is to begin right where we are, with ourselves. For me, that healing has meant reconnecting to the joy that expresses my true self — that elemental childlike state of innocent delight and inherent trust in good that was mine and all our birthrights. It was the love with which we all are born, before fear comes in and starts to whisper, then speak, and eventually shout in our ears.
To me, practicing joy is choosing Love. Every day, every hour, every minute, we get to choose. Will we choose fear or love? Finding a way to practice joy in my customer service exchanges connected me with lovingkindness, compassion, gratitude, and even a little fun. I know that when I hang up the phone now, it is with a smile on my face. And I know, too, that my customer service rep usually does, too.
In those fantastical childhood books I loved to read, sometimes the fulfillment of a quest had extraordinary, undreamed-of consequences. Each time I make a floating-island person laugh, I like to imagine that they are magically transported from that island back home to their long-lost loved ones, who greet them with a warm embrace, so grateful for their long-awaited return.
Or maybe that’s not a fantasy at all. . . Maybe that one smile translates into a warmer hello for the next problem call. Maybe that smile permeates the whole day. Maybe that little joy infusion is carried out into the world with them and passed on to the next person they see.
After all, aren’t we all providing some kind of customer service? I sure am. Usually I’m trying to get help fixing the technology that I believe will help me do a better job for my clients. It’s all one big circle.
Mahatma Gandhi said it best: "Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy."
As I pray to learn how to be of more service in the world, I feel comforted that, whatever answers I am given, I know that I will bring to my service this life-altering daily practice of joy!