Discovering the Extraordinary Amidst the Ordinary

by SD Shantinath

Originally published in the BaslerZeitung English section May 2002

Like many people, I often find myself running to the Migros Kirschgarten, either at lunch-time or just before it closes. Such visits are typically rushed and hectic.

Recently, I found myself standing in the check out line of Frau Schnell. Standing at the checkout, as she scanned my groceries I was struck by her presence. She had always been friendly and polite, but this time I perceived something about her that I had previously overlooked. Her demeanor gave off a sense of radiance, or as the Swiss Germans like to say “strahlen”.

As I waited to pay for my groceries, I realized that the feeling of pressure within me had momentarily stopped. There in the middle of rush hour, because of her friendly demeanor, she had created a tiny but significant island of peace for me.

Walking back with my groceries, I recalled the words of Marcel Geisser, a Buddhist Teacher who presides over Haus Tao, a Zen Center in Appenzell. “A lot of people talk about kindness towards strangers in a very dramatic sense – like going off to a developing country to work with the poor,” he said. “But it is something one can do right here right now- where ever one is. Take for instance the woman at the Migros cash register. We had someone who worked in our town for many years. She was just doing her job, but did it with a smile. She was friendly and cheerful and when she retired, everyone missed her.”

“Ah yes,” I said to myself “Appenzell has a radiant Mirgros cashier, and it looks like we have one in Basel too.”

Over the next few weeks, I began to look for her each time I entered the Migros. My eyes would scan all of the check-out counters, and I would seek her out. I began to wonder what it was about her that made her special. What allowed her to transform the mundane act of paying for groceries into a friendly, uplifting exchange?

As I watched her work, I noticed that she made eye contact with the customers. She did not just utter an automatic greeting as she looked down at the scanner. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that her style of greeting was actually a reflection of her inner joie de vivre -something she naturally had- rather than a kind of superficial friendliness that she might have been taught as part of customer service.

In seeking to understand Frau Schnell’s kind radiance, I realized that the man at the corner fruit stand, next to Migros, is a bit like her too. As a result, I began to take note of our interactions more consciously. I became aware that each and every time I pass the corner, if our eyes meet, he greets me as he stands behind his spread of fruits.

He greets me with an equal intensity of friendliness- regardless of whether I have recently bought fruit from him or not. For a time, I did not buy from him at all. But no matter. He never said anything to me and greeted me just the same when I showed up at his stand unable to resist the bright red Williams pears.

When I told him that I wanted to write about him, I discovered that he has a sense of humor. I asked him his name, to which he replied ” Ferrari, but I am the kind without a motor.” A couple of days later I mentioned that I had carried some of his pears to Zurich for friends and how much they had enjoyed them. He replied “Make your friends even happier and take them even more fruit from me!”

As I prepared to write this article, I recalled the Sri Lankan man who works at the Migros Flower shop across from the fruit stand.

“Do you know him?” asked a friend who was walking with me once as he said good evening.

“No,” I replied. “He just says hello each time he sees me.”

Forty something, with long curly hair and a gold earring in one ear, he looks more like he should have an electric guitar in front of him, rather than a cart full of plants or soil which I often see him pushing on the sidewalk. For all I know, maybe he does play in a band on weekends. The only thing I know for sure is that I can count on a friendly greeting from him whenever he sees me.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about my street Henric-Petri Strasse in and of itself – but it is the people whom I regularly encounter there that make it special for me. Their type of kindness never gets mentioned in any newspapers or magazines. They just do their job and do it well, with the intent of making others happy and feel well treated. Most of all, their wish to deliver good service is genuine and comes from within.

Often, we only hear about bad events in the world. And when the media present stories about people, they tend to be about the rich and famous kind, or the really down and out kind. We seldom hear about ordinary people, who are in fact, because of their consistently pleasant nature, quite extraordinary in the effects they have on other people.

Though we may not hear about such people, I am quite sure that there are others like them who live and work all over Basel, as well as in other towns, and in other countries – around the world. They are ordinary people going about carrying out their jobs. But in the process of so doing, even in a world filled with worries and war, taxes and terrorism, they somehow manage to contribute to the happiness of those around them.

Copyright 2005 S.D. Shantinath, All Rights Reserved