It was one of those busy days when the entire world seems bent on tossing impediments in my path. I was on my way to a workout, which I badly needed, when traffic stopped dead. Ahead of me, taillights glowed as far as I could see. Nobody was going anywhere.
I sighed, relaxed my grip on the wheel, and remembered a promise I’d made to myself. Especially when stressed, I would try to be on my nicest behavior. So when the woman in the oversized SUV tried to nudge her way from a side street into my lane, I smiled and waved her on.
She didn’t look in my direction, just eased in front of me. Suddenly I felt trapped, shut in by the backside of a veritable bus. It was absurd. I narrowed my eyes, and the thing in front of me transformed into an abomination, a metal and glass monument to rudeness and excess. I quietly, impotently seethed.
It wasn’t really the vehicle’s size that so offended me. There were plenty of others just like it on the road. But the driver had committed the most heinous of sins. She hadn’t waved to me or done anything to acknowledge my kindness.
To me the wave isn’t optional. When someone does me a favor in traffic, I respond. A wave, a little honk, a quick flash of my headlights. This woman had taken it as her right to muscle her way in front of me, without so much as a backwards glance. The nerve.
It wasn’t until that evening that I woke up to what I’d been doing. It came to me with a jolt while I was reviewing some of the Seva sayings I’ve posted on my Facebook page. The one that caught my eye said, “True service comes from stepping in when needed—and walking away without expecting thanks.”
I knew right then that I owed that driver a silent apology.
Basing my actions on the thanks I should receive, that by all rights is my due, won’t help me learn how to follow the path of Seva. Far from it. Looking for reward does nothing but waste my time and effort. It’s a small thing, expecting another driver to be courteous enough to give a gesture of thanks. But that expectation can be poisonous.
Either I do things for others out of a pure desire to help, with no other motive, or I am serving myself more than them. That particular day I was feeling particularly smug: Even in this awful traffic, I’m managing to be a nice person. My ego was burning brightly. The woman who failed to wave at me fanned its self-righteous flame.
A very wise person told me recently that when I’m offended by something, I should carefully examine my feelings to see why. Which of my dearly held beliefs have been affronted? Only by looking them full in the face can I see them for what they are—and let them go.
There are certainly more egregious examples of people who have failed to say thank you to someone who has been kind or helpful. I can cite dozens of examples within our family and our friends’ families in which the omission of those two words has caused hard feelings. But with every new slight we can choose whether to make an issue of it or let it go. I can tell you from experience that it’s a lot less damaging to everyone to choose the latter.
“Damaging” is a strong word, I know. Still, if we set our hearts on living in service to others, this is one of the most important lessons we can learn. My goal is to give of myself for the joy of giving. The only way to do that is to release any desire for thanks. If it’s offered, I’ll gladly accept it. If it’s not, well—the next time I’m stuck in traffic, I’ll still let drivers cut in front of me. It’s a small gesture that will benefit me most of all.