Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Margins of error


I needed to go to the bank today, on church business. I had to wait an hour, for a five-minute appointment I could not book in advance, and was then soaked to the skin caught in a downpour on my walk home.

Both the waiting and the soaking were good for me.

It is good to have to wait, in a driven society in which we demand now, now, now of one another. And it is hard to take ourselves too seriously when we are drenched, when wet wool socks rub up against the upper of our shoes.

I did not think it would be fair to anyone for me to wait an hour over lunchtime without food, so having booked myself into the line, I ducked out to grab a Greggs vegan sausage roll and a large orange juice and had my lunch on the pavement outside the bank. Across from me, someone had parked where they ought not to have parked, and a traffic warden was writing them a ticket. As they were finishing their job, the driver returned and poured out a torrent of abuse before pulling away in anger. I crossed the street to say, I am sorry that you had to experience that abuse for simply doing your job. The warden thanked me, assured me that his skin was thick, and that he would not lose any sleep over it tonight, but that he appreciated my taking the time to come over and check he was okay.

We live with such a loss of margins, of space, that we put ourselves under unnecessary stress and are increasingly likely to take that out on other people. We need to choose to restore the margins. And the things we have no control over help. It wasn't awful that I had to wait an hour today, that is just how long it takes. Some things take far longer.

Back inside, I waited near the reception desk, which essentially functions as a triage. A man came in, needing to sort things out after the death of his wife. The staff member on the desk dealt with him with courtesy and care, as one would hope, but what might be called a professional manner was really a pastoral encounter. And I do not imagine bank staff get pastoral training.

Another man came in. He was hoping to be able to set up a current account for an elderly relative who had held a savings account with the branch for years but needed to be able to set up some direct debits. She had mobility and hearing issues; her son, who had taken care of her finances, had died; power of attorney had not been established; he himself lived in another part of the country, was only here for a couple of days, and hoped to set up an appointment within a very narrow window. I do not doubt that he was genuine, but the member of staff simply could not respond as he hoped within the very narrow parameters he was asking for. Not because the bank was inflexible, but that it would not reschedule other customers.

In exploring all alternative options, the bank treated this man, and the customer he represented, with dignity and care. In not cancelling on other customers, they were treating those customers with the same dignity and care. There are few things more frustrating than being messed around, even if there is nothing to be gained by frustration. If I am meeting with you, and someone else calls me, they will have to wait; and if I am meeting with someone else when you call me, you will have to leave a message. And it takes as long as it takes. Cultivate margins. You will live longer. Paradoxically, time spent waiting in queues will become more interesting and not feel so long either.

I had not anticipated that a trip to the bank would yield so many human encounters, but of course it is impossible to be among human beings without such moments. We need one another, and are made to reach out to one another, and today only served as a reminder that this is why we are alive at all.


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