I left retail – hopefully for good – two weeks ago. But, while it’s been a hell of a ride, taken mostly against my will, it’s also been life changing.
I started working in the service industry in college. My first real, tax-paying job was at Blockbuster in 2008. Then the recession hit, and by the time I graduated from college – with my very practical Religious Studies and English degrees – there really weren’t any options for living-wage labor. I went from Hobby Lobby to a coffee shop to the thrift shop, where I worked, mostly happily, for five years.
There are things I will always appreciate about the service industry.
As a kid who grew up with financial security, good grades, and the idea that “I could be anything I want” pounded into my skull, it was necessary and humbling to work in a setting that didn’t require or expect a college degree. It was good to have customers repeatedly assume I didn’t have goals for myself, and try to give me advice that did more to prove their superiority to themselves than to lift my spirits. It revealed to me that the underbelly of classism, even when cloaked as helpful advice from strangers, is a kind of dehumanization, a reinforcement of inequality, a kind of patronizing pity.
I also learned a lot about human behavior, how the worst customer could either be a narcissist or someone in the midst of crisis, or both, and that compassion was my best weapon in either case.
I learned, too, to demand my humanity. When people asked me how I was, I often told them honestly: “Good, but a bit tired,” “Having a hard week, but it’ll be ok.” Many times these responses were met with discomfort, even shock, but sometimes they initiated long term friendships. And in all cases, I like to think, they reminded customers that they were welcome to be honest with me, and with themselves, too.
Though our context was transactional, we were not required to consume one another.
More than anything, retail showed me that people are desperate for community. That retail is a refuge that extends beyond the dopamine-rush of shopping. Lonely people are everywhere, and some of them look perfectly content from the outside. Our “modern,” clinical, individualistic society has come to insist that personal struggles and traumas are best told to a psychologist or not spoken at all (this is not to discount the importance of therapy, but rather to say that we can’t just partition trauma off to be “dealt with” by professionals – it impacts all of us).
Access to media, busyness culture, and (totally warranted) political, ecological, and social overwhelm keep us in a prison in which vulnerability is no longer acceptable, and so we struggle in silence.
But it’s possible to cultivate something better, and this is where retail and service workers have more power than most.
We are the people in the trenches. We have the best seat in the house to human society as it moves through its day. We see the tired eyes and overhear the frustrated phone conversations. We are receivers of good news and counselors to the grieving. We are, sometimes, the only listening ears.
I am being honest when I say that working in retail for ten years is the reason I’m going to seminary. Because I have seen the full range of the world’s problems in a single day at the thrift shop, and I want to respond in the most meaningful way possible. I want to build my toolkit with empathy, accountability, clear-eyed ethics, and appropriate boundaries. I want to be available in a way that builds stronger communities as a rule rather than a consequence.
Service workers are a stop-gap in a society that doesn’t always let us be the full expression of our suffering, exultant, eccentric selves. But they – we – are not trained for it. We do it because we have to, and we do it on minimum wage. What would it look like if there were adequate resources for care, if we understood what it meant to be accountable to each other in ways that are not transactional?
These are the questions I seek to explore, and the things I hope to build within myself and within my community moving forward.
Leaving retail doesn’t discount the work of retail and service employees all over the world. You are doing the Lord’s work, breaking your backs and your hearts without receiving much in return. You didn’t ask for it, but you took up the mantle and answered the call anyway.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The Guest House, Rumi