Lessons in love from a career bagboy


It turned out that a career bagboy could teach a successful professional quite a lot ... about love.

One of the greatest physicists of our time, Stephen Hawking, suffers a severe physical disability, but we so value the intellectual gifts God has given him that we endure the slow monotone of his computer-generated speech simply to say that we have heard “him” in person.

This is how the Bible says it will be. Those parts of the Body that seem least worthy of honor – the ones we are prone to despise, to pass by, to set aside, to “sit on” and squelch – God has clothed with special honor. And God has done this with a purpose: so that all of the parts of the Body would recognize their need for each other. Great gifts are often invested in people you and I wouldn’t trust with regular removal of our trash because God needs us to trust them with something. Maybe it’s not the trash. Maybe it’s a solo, or a garden, or a Sunday lesson. Maybe it’s something much larger.

We value very few things in people now: speed, clarity, consistency, accuracy. It really comes down to the ability to accomplish a great many things within a clear area of focus. We encourage people to “live their personal brand” not their human lives. We offer pitying admiration of those whose capabilities have left them, childlike, able to do little but warmly embrace the people around them. “ ‘They’ are so loving,” we say, with condescension.

Let me tell you about my friend, Jamie. Jamie’s large blue eyes are set into a broad, placid face that has never had more than a thin comb-over of blond hair in all the years I’ve known him. He’s built square, and in another man, that could be intimidating. But Jamie is a simple and unthreatening man. Until he became ill with cancer last year, he had spent his career carefully packing groceries into bags at an urban supermarket in Boston. That was his lifetime peak professional accomplishment. And after his first 15 years, it even won him a citation from the mayor as an exemplary disabled citizen.

Jamie watches a lot of television, so with every order, he gave his version of a benediction on the customer: “Do you know, you look just like (Farrah Fawcett / Lee Majors / Tina Fey)?”  

When my husband and I asked why he did that, he explained, “I just like to brighten up their day.”  Jamie’s brain wasn’t built to hold a lot of ideas, but it did hold that one: that part of his job on earth was to make life brighter for other people.

Another way Jamie brightens up other people’s days is by sending birthday cards. On his limited income, he often can’t afford commercial cards, but he will scrawl a long note on a lined index card about his job, his cat, his home, and common friends, stuff it in an envelope, and make sure it arrives on time.

I always figured it was a savant trick that allowed him to keep track of dozens of birthdays when I can’t even always get an e-card to my siblings. And I felt quite guilty that Jamie always remembered my birthday while I often forgot his.

Eventually, I apologized to him. “Oh!” he said. “Remembering birthdays is easy. Do you want to know how? You just get a little book and write them all down in it. Then you’ll never forget.”

Ouch. A kind and generous lesson in love from my friend whose career is joyfully bagging groceries and brightening up every customer’s day.

But didn’t our God tell us that love was the greatest gift? And didn’t God also tell us that he would place the greatest gifts in those parts of the Body that seemed least worthy of honor, so that all parts of the Body might recognize their need of each other?

I started college at 16 with a year of credits. In my last company, I was one of the fastest to make associate in the company’s history. And I need my friends like Jamie to remind me: The greatest of these is love.

Who has helped you learn something new about love?


About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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3 Responses to Lessons in love from a career bagboy

  1. I’m in e-conversation with a reader who wants more info on the scriptural basis for this post. Generally speaking, 1 Corinthians 12. The specific text I focus on is verses 21-26, where God explains that the way the gifts are distributed in the Body, the greatest have been given to the parts of the Body “giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” As I read this, the gifts are distributed in the Congregation so as to give greater honor to the individuals (persons) who otherwise lacked it. So what I see in this is that the gifts often land in persons who are variously marginalized, whether by disability, poverty, etc.

  2. somewhere says:

    Ah. I could (and probably have, now that I read this) respond as a strident disability advocate and say with some accuracy that Jamie’s stature is so marginalized economically due to the income limits (enforced poverty) placed on people with disabilities on SSDI, (Social Security Disability Income) that he cannot afford cards, and this is tragic. But he’s lucky to work; 70% of PWDs don’t. There is no love from gov’t programs that require people on SSDI to create special trusts where they have to place any income over a certain low amount-in order to remain receiving ‘benefits’. And they lose the money upon death-it reverts back to the gov’t (Medicaid, Medicare, the state, etc), not to family-as a regular ‘trust’ would.

    I enjoyed meeting Jamie through your writing. Carlene, you know me too well for me to get away with my typical blazing brush, here. I am going to stay with the scripture. It’s hard to love what we fear, though. Most folks have so little experience with disability-physical, or intellectual, that they fear it. Jamie knows this intuitively. It’s another reason he is so engaging. He knows on some level *he* needs to reach out, or he risks being misunderstood, feared and ignored. He could probably not tell you this, or maybe he could.

    I enjoyed this post, and I’ll hold out for Farrah Fawcett 🙂

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