Metta Puts the Kettle On
Every month, I genuinely don't know what experiment will unfold from taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world until the Dharma sends "clues" from different (and often unrelated) sources.
The first clue for this latest metta experiment came from a chance conversation at the end of November with an executive coach of big-name industry leaders. My mind was still mulling bosses of all sorts from last month's experiments, and I asked if there was a common thread running through what they found themselves teaching bosses across the board?
"Getting through to them that leadership is in fact about serving their staff."
The run-up to the end of the calendar year can get a little (or a lot) crazy. In hospitality, it's called silly season for good reason and I was secretly dreading working back-to-back Christmas parties. Part of me was sorely tempted to simply hibernate until January when a chef I'd worked with earlier in the year sent me this second clue:
I took one look at this meme and immediately connected it to the executive coaching conversation: what if, along with serving guests endless turkey dinners and filling endless prosecco glasses, I also served the servers endless metta?
Once I felt an inner yes to embark on this next metta experiment, the offers of shifts came in thick and fast (sometimes fifty a day, no joke) and I confirmed every feasible one. I had also noticed how stressed the agency office staff were already looking in October (no joke either) and—not one to do anything by halves—offered to "serve" them too with any admininstrative support or swapping to shifts that weren't being picked up by other temps.
The result? Instead of resisting the seasonal insanity under my duvet, I free-fell into it working 12+ hour days for four solid weeks and could easily write a novel (per shift) about all that transpired next.
Offering to “put the kettle on” is an understated British way of expressing that—along with making an actual hot drink—you're also possibly: welcoming or comforting someone, don't know what else to say or do, preparing to listen, bracing yourself to face something awkward, showing solidarity, or you're a fan of Monty Python's submarine sketch in The Meaning of Life.
Think back to the chef meme, and imagine offering to make him a hot drink. Without exception, every real chef I put the kettle on for last month was actually struck speechless (no mean feat). Seeing how easily a little metta buoyed the mood back-of-house, I experimented offering whatever food or drink I realistically could the minute I noticed fellow front-of-house staff flagging too.
One increasingly grumpy bartender gratefully accepted a slice of bread I slipped her during a Christmas party for orthopaedic surgeons (particularly ironic considering how sore our feet already were in week one!) that was going on longer than anyone had expected, making it impossible to take a break or leave in time to catch the last bus.
I later found her at the end of that endless shift with her forehead on the bar. I gently asked if everything was ok, and she looked up at me with utterly exhausted eyes saying: "You must be the kindest person I've ever met." I quipped that it must've been really delicious bread, and thanked her for the unexpected compliment by adding, "I try to be a person I'd like to work with." She half-groaned and half-laughed to herself: "I would NOT have wanted to work with me tonight!" My turn to laugh, pat her on the back, and tease: "Well, there is that." We both grinned, and I got a bear hug-on-arrival instead of a bear growl from her every subsequent shift we worked together.
Along with dehydration and low blood sugar, sore feet are all too common on long hospitality shifts. How did serving the servers metta translate in that case? By bringing in my little reflexology mat.
At the start of a shift, it often got dubious looks. By the end of a shift, it had usually proven a great leveller and everyone - from chefs to dish washers, floor managers to waiters - had taken their shoes off to have a go in the kitchen, surprised at how much relief even a minute on the mat could bring, and asking where they could buy one too.
One evening, I arrived on shift and could feel a new co-worker already near boiling point before we'd even begun. Unlike the grumpy bartender, the right moment to serve this waitress during service never came and, when I was finally able to offer her a hot drink she snapped, "You certainly like to keep busy."
An unexpected benefit of serving the servers is genuinely not taking a passive-aggressive remark like that to heart. Instead, I saw a fellow exhausted waitress. When all the guests had left and we could prepare the room for the next day's parties (usually the most endless part of a seemingly never-ending shift), I followed a hunch as we set tables side-by-side by deliberately making a mistake. She noticed it, and couldn't have been kinder correcting my error as I confessed how exhausted I was feeling. She then even walked me to my bus stop afterwards and told me her own worries en route.
Interestingly, the tables already started turning in week two of the "serve the servers" metta experiment when a guest at a Christmas canapé and casino party for a high end firm of solicitors placed three drinks order at the bar stressing they weren't all for her. This is usual with someone taking full advantage of an account bar hoping to get drunk as quickly as possible (i.e. their employers are picking up the tab), but she then unexpectedly asked me to serve them to the croupiers and DJ.
They gratefully gulped the drinks down when I brought them over and, on the way back to the bar, I discreetly commented to the guest who had placed the order in passing how thoughtful it was of her to notice their thirst. Over the DJ's Christmas music set from the turntables, she shared that she had put herself through her legal studies by waitressing. It was pretty clear looking around the room that most of the other guests probably hadn't had to do the same, and I couldn't resist sharing a pet theory that—rather than mandatory military service—perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place if everyone had to do a year's customer service? She belly-laughed at the idea, and gave me a hug in complete agreement.
A few nights later, another company was celebrating their Christmas "do" with a £4000 (US$5280) bar tab (a frankly terrifying figure for us staff, as some guests see this as an actual challenge to spend it all). The drinks orders poured in thick and furious, with five of us climbing over each like a litter of puppies behind the bar trying to fill them as best we could without hurting each other in the process by mistake.
The drunker the guests got, the more impatient and loud their requests got too. When a woman motioned to me that she wanted a private word, my heart sank at having to deal with a complaint in the midst of the increasing chaos. Instead, she confessed she'd gladly be anywhere else but had to keep up professional appearances: would it be possible to go through the motions of making her gin and tonics that were really only tonics? I gladly accepted her surprising request, assuring her it would be a “tonic” to bar staff too by providing us a little breather every time she placed her order.
Serving the agency office any daytimes I could proved a whole other kettle of fish. It's the company's national head office coordinating some 40,000 casual catering staff and, in December, makes both Santa's grotto and The International Stock Exchange look like meditation halls!
Officially, I was there to help with phone interviews; unofficially, I realised I was there to generate metta for everyone as it became obvious many were working far harder behind the scenes than us temps on actual shifts.
As the weeks wore on, I often noticed staff wearing the same clothes as the day before, their eyes getting duller, and their conversations getting more heated. Metta moved me to do what I could: make plenty of drinks—as well as to provide plenty of chocolate!
When the newest (and youngest) recruiter shyly confessed to me she had burst into tears at work the day before from all the pressure (bearing in mind this was still in November), I assured her everyone's "been there"—me included—and made sure to jokingly award her a gold star within earshot of the company's director.
I was absolutely delighted to discover on my last day helping the office that the director had actually followed my "lead" and bought her a whole sheet of gold star stickers.
Catching the bus to the agency office that final morning of this "serve the servers" experiment, I spotted a librarian I'm friendly with on board and she motioned for me to sit next to her. We exchanged funny stories about how crazy our respective Decembers had become since we'd last seen each other, and agreed what a tough time of year it could be for many people.
She then shared how, after a night out, she'd checked Facebook one last time before heading to bed in the early hours of the morning and noticed a post from her son's taxi driver friend that sounded to her like a goodbye. Following a hunch, she simply posted "the kettle's on" to invite him over if he didn't currently have a fare. Ten minutes later, he knocked on her door.
Turns out, putting that kettle on saved his life.
And so, my fellow metta-scientists, as we all welcome this new year and decade, please don't underestimate our power to "lead" by serving those who serve us. Or, to metta-morphose that famous line from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life:
Every time metta puts the kettle on,
an angel gets its wings.
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A Time of Giving: A Christmas Meditation on Generosity for Buddhists