June 1, 2012: The Doughman: A small lesson in empathy, by Brenton Phillips

William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Coming of Wisdom with Time” supports the ancient notion that the acquisition of wisdom is a gradual process, and that only those with years of experience can have wisdom. Sometimes, though, I think Wisdom resorts to a gentle whack with a metaphorical ball-peen hammer, especially when I am too stupid to “get it.”

In college I was a dormitory night watchman with minimal duties — mostly keeping drunk students from waking up the several hundred other drunk students sleeping it off, giving out phone numbers to girls and checking and locking doors. And, of course, heating food in the office microwave.

When it was in the game room, the microwave had been used to nuke all kinds of non-food objects — cockroaches, wet tennis shoes, Coke cans, anything metal that lit up the microwave’s insides like the Fourth of July. Other users left splatterings of Spaghetti-O’s or Campbell’s Chicken and Noodle Soup.

Consequently, the microwave had been moved to the office so the dorm staff could control its use.  An inconvenience for sure, and everyone complained about not being able to heat his own food, but that’s the way it was in a men’s dorm in the early ’80s. The temptation to misuse practically everything — from our own bodies to microwaves — was often too great for the average college male.

I learned to deal with the rowdy partiers and the occasional bomb threat. My biggest source of irritation, however, was a doughy freshman who invariably showed up about 10:30 every night, just as I settled down to study behind the desk. The Doughman, as I began to think of him, would waddle up to the counter, push up his glasses and plop on the countertop one of those Cenozoic-era frozen burritos from a vending machine. He then opened his hometown newspaper just retrieved from his mailbox, leaned his plump arms on the counter and without looking at me, ordered, “Heat this up.”  No civility.  No acknowledgement that I was more than a dogsbody.  (I was a menial, but he at least could be appreciative.)

After a few weeks, the routine was established. The Doughman’s attitude scraped at my nerve endings and each evening I became more sullen. Eventually he had me trained — he didn’t bother to speak at all; he just slapped the burrito on the counter and I resentfully got up, snatched up the burrito with barely controlled anger, stomped into the office, slung it into the microwave, slammed the door and twisted the dial to HIGH for seven or eight minutes, much longer than was sufficient. The burrito came out practically glowing like the reactor at Chernobyl. He won’t be able to eat the thing for at least 10 minutes or it’ll blister his tongue.  Such was my pettiness for having my routine rudely interrupted by someone wishing me to do the job I was paid for.

After dropping the radioactive burrito on the counter, I’d return to my throne and, fuming visibly, try to get zoned back into factoring polynomials. I’d sneak glances at the Doughman gingerly plucking at the burrito wrapper, the cellophane still too hot to handle, jerking his burnt fingers away. Passive-aggressiveness takes whatever cheap revenge it can get.

One evening after I set the microwave timer, I glanced at the Doughman as he read his mail. He held a Hallmark card, the words “To Our Dear Son” emblazoned in fancy script on the front. Looking for any evidence of dearness in the Doughman’s face and coming up empty, I checked the words on the front of the card again. I had read correctly.

I knew my parents loved me, despite all my faults and flaws.  The Doughman had parents who loved him — despite his faults and flaws.

It was an epiphany. I saw our common bond, no longer an abstract concept from religion class about loving your neighbor. The Doughman was real.

We both had parents who loved us, and I could imagine them missing him as mine missed me.

At the ding of the microwave timer, I retrieved the burrito and laid it almost gently in front of the Doughman. “Here you go.  Careful, it’s hot.”  The Doughman didn’t respond; he was too busy re-reading the card from the parents who loved him.

If life was a sentimental made-for-TV movie, the Doughman and I would have become — in the current lingo — Best Friends Forever.  But this wasn’t TV.

Our nightly ritual continued for the rest of the year, but now I served him politely. And even though I never did ask his name, and he never spoke to me,  I realized the connection between us, and maybe that was enough.

The Japanese call it omoiyari and they seem to place more importance on it than we do. We call it empathy. Over the years, I try to remember to say a prayer for the people I see on the street — the mailman, the kid on the skateboard, the elderly lady walking her dog, the city guy patching holes in the pavement, that businesswoman getting into her car. Whenever I think of the Doughman, I send up a prayer for him, too, hoping those horrible nightly burritos didn’t destroy his arteries.

And hoping he, too, is having a wonderful life.

— Brenton Phillips chairs the English-Communications Department at Cloud County Community College.







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