For my first few years as a librarian, I felt richly rewarded, a shining star of helpfulness. In a nutshell, I get paid to give people advice when they ask me for help, and then they thank me. Smart! Altruistic! Serving the public! What’s not to love? As my younger brother said when I first got the job, “Well, Anne, you do love to tell people what to do.” But after a few years, the unrewarding aspects of the work began to overshadow the more enjoyable ones.
Some people dismissed my advice. Some were rude. Troubled souls came to me with problems a librarian couldn’t solve. At times, I felt like the public wanted to tear me into pieces and chew me up. I had panic attacks and migraines. I took a lot of sick days, a lot of naps, and a lot of sedatives.
In the midst of this darkness, Christmas came and I was struck by the beautiful exchange between Mary and the angel Gabriel in Luke 1 when she declares, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” When I was a kid, that sounded kind of cushy to me, as if “handmaid” were a job where you might fetch scented oils or pour tea. I had to grow up a bit to understand that only the most gracious soul could embrace Mary’s infinitely difficult service.
That Christmas, I began to wonder exactly how I was helping people as a librarian if, perhaps, a big chunk of the equation was that I was using their need for help to elevate myself on a pedestal labeled, “Anne: A public-spirited, smart and good person.”
Did I foster neediness so I could feel important?
The help she needs
Ironically, it was one of my neediest library users who helped me get past this conundrum. Kelly, a teenager with a host of problems, came to use the internet for hours each day and no one on the staff wanted to help her. Sullen, unhealthy, easily offended, she was slow to learn in every way. She asked us to show her the same things over and over again. My first thought was that she might have a reading or vision problem. But a glance at her Facebook page showed that she could read and spell and type well enough.
She had learned with no difficulty at all that if you raise your hand in the library, a librarian will walk over and offer to help you. It’s just like clicking on a FarmVille hay bale on Facebook — she moved her digital bales of hay around with her mouse, and she moved us librarians around with her raised hand.
One day when she waved me over to her computer, again, and I felt I was at the very frayed end of my very last rope, I found myself spontaneously praying, “Dear Jesus, please help me to give Kelly exactly the help that she needs right now, in this moment.” At once, the grumbling that normally played in my mind when I dealt with Kelly went silent and I felt strangely quiet inside.
After she asked me her question — how to print, again — I found myself just holding her gaze for a while. I think none of us ever really looked at Kelly, she was so annoying to us all. When I did reply, I didn’t feel that it was me choosing the words. It was more like I was a pitcher full of water pouring over her hands; as if there was an open window next to us and I was pointing to it effortlessly. My quick and rather desperate prayer had been answered as a gift to both of us.
The words that came out of my mouth were, “What do you think you might click on, if it were up to you?” She pointed tentatively at the print icon. “You could try that,” I said. “See if it works. You can try something else if it doesn’t.” She clicked, and up came the instructions for how to print. She smiled, and looked surprised at her own smile. I was surprised to find I was smiling too.
Of course, my actual words to Kelly are not at all important, in the sense that it wasn’t a magic phrase I can whip out when I’m frustrated. It was just the right thing to say to that girl in that moment, and it flowed out of my mouth as if it had come from a much more powerful source than my brain.
My cranky ego
As I walked away from our exchange, something dawned on me. Truly, it wasn’t helping Kelly that was so exhausting; it wasn’t her sullen personality. It was my own cranky ego seething with complaints — Kelly is wasting library resources; people don’t appreciate what I have to deal with.
Not Kelly, not a dozen people like Kelly, it was my own mind that was killing my joy in life, killing my will to serve.
Since then, I have tried (not always successfully) to be mindful that I can’t dole out water all day from the small bucket that is my self. I have to reach instead for the endless stream of water that comes through Spirit. It helps if I treat each inquiry at the library as a fresh piece of paper, a fresh chance for two souls to be together, a chance to practice service by dipping into that endless stream. It can be as simple as just standing still and looking a person in the eye when I ask, “Would you prefer to take the stairs or the elevator?” It can be as challenging as keeping my eyes, ears and heart equally open as I broker a truce between two grown men fighting over the fax machine.
When I begin a conversation with that sense of service to, and service from, the Spirit, I’m quiet inside, listening to people, taking their requests seriously. They feel they are at the heart of my intention to help, that there is plenty of room for them in the library, that they can explore its endless possibilities.
If I do this well, then the people I help will feel that the library is theirs, perhaps even more than it is mine. Because, after all, I am just the guide. I am just the finger that points to the open window, the servant who offers water from a stream.