“You are truly a gentleman,” I told him. Later, I began to wonder if it had been a mistake.
It was early morning on the final day of a recent trip to Ireland. I had just finished a session on the treadmill in the hotel’s fitness center and was returning to our room. To my delight, as I wandered through the lobby, I discovered a small stand offering complimentary coffee; for me, the perfect end to a morning workout. As the steaming beverage filled my cup, a smartly dressed hotel employee adorned with a cheerful smile strode over to wish me a good morning. When I thanked him for the coffee, his smile broadened, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I make sure our guests get fresh, hot coffee every morning.” I was taken by his sincerity and intimacy. It was at that moment I made the mistake of telling him he was a gentleman.
It is easy to confine a human being with a careless, poorly considered word. Not long ago, I had a long conversation with a young woman who was imprisoned by the word “worthless,” the moniker her parents inscribed on her psyche throughout her childhood. “Nothing I ever did was good enough,” she explained, fighting back tears. It broke my heart to hear this bright, articulate, caring young woman tell me over and over how, even in those moments when she knew in her heart-of-hearts she was kind, generous, hard-working and determined, she could not shake the feeling she had not a shred of true worth.
But isn’t it different to use a description like “gentleman” that conjures images of generosity, care and nobility? How could that possibly confine or imprison a person?
When I turned a kind, early morning gesture of a hotel employee into a description of him as a human being, I imprisoned him. No human being is perfect…there are moments in every life during which we fail to live up to the high standards to which we ascribe. No doubt, there will be moments in which he fails to live into what it means to be a gentleman. In those moments of self-disappointment, I imagine him looking in a mirror and thinking, “That guest who told me I was a gentleman, was so very wrong. I am nothing of the kind.”
A moniker is a title we either accept or reject, and, due to our imperfections, even the kindest, most lovingly offered labels can end up on the rubbish heap of our lives.
In a book I read recently, the author advocates for unconditional self-acceptance. We should always endeavor to exceed high standards and celebrate those moments in which we do. But, can we learn to be gentle with ourselves when we inevitably fail to live into the person we hope to be? Can we recall our worth even when we misstep?
Whenever we encounter a moment of grace with another person, might we comment on what was achieved, and refrain from turning a kind gesture, moment of brilliance, or extraordinary accomplishment, into a confining description of a person’s humanity? I wish I could return to my encounter with a truly wonderful human being in a hotel lobby in Dublin. I would, instead of commenting on the entirety of his humanity, have simply commented on his act of kindness and generosity. Thanked him for the way in which his manner, brilliant smile and words, made me feel as though I was the most important person in his life; at that moment, I believe I was. Then, at some future time, should he fail to live up to his high standards, he will always be able to recall an early morning encounter in which he succeeded…and celebrate.