It's an emotional roller coaster, and emotional roller coasters are exhausting. Especially so when you're essentially operating as a last resort for people dealing with difficult situations and they can't seem to get help from anywhere else. An instructor I had once referred to it as "working in the emergency rooms of society," with all the psychological hazards of a real, medical trauma ward.
Some people seem to handle this really, really well, appearing honestly grateful for the opportunity to serve. Others, less so.
When faced with the realities of a service job, and the fact that you've got to be at literally EVERYONE'S beck and call always, there's a very human tendency to grab tightly onto whatever power you can get a hold of, guard it jealously, and lash out at anyone who threatens it. Or tell people you can't/won't do things for them, simply for the satisfaction of telling someone "no."
I firmly believe that no one's immune to that tendency, the question is whether or not you indulge it. The other day I felt like maybe I just would indulge it.
Then I remembered a story I heard once.
This may come as a shock, but I used to go to church. Many things I heard there did NOT stick with me over the years, but there are a few things that did. One of them was a story, told by our minister during some sermon or other, about a knight who learns a very important lesson about service. I could remember the main points but not the details, and despite a perfunctory web search I couldn't find a written version of it. So I decided to dust off my long-dormant imagination and flesh it out a bit.
Re-writing the story gave me some good stuff to think about, so hopefully it'll serve as a sort of "chicken soup for the service-worker's soul" to anyone who might read it and see parallels to their own life/work. Or maybe just be a nice little story.
***In a faraway kingdom long, long ago, the queen called one of her greatest, most loyal knights, Sir Strongbow, to the throne room. Though winter still blanketed the kingdom, the days had begun to feel longer, and the nights less cruel.
"Sir Strongbow," began the queen, "I have a task for you, which is of the utmost importance."
"Of course, my queen. I am yours to command," replied Sir Strongbow.
"Spring is coming soon, and the snow covered-road to my summer castle will soon be passable. You shall travel to the summer castle, and stand guard at the gates while the servants prepare for the royal procession's arrival. What say you to this quest?"
"Your Majesty, you do me a great honor by entrusting this task to me."
"And you honor all the kingdom with your service, Sir. You must guard your post faithfully, and I shall expect you to personally welcome me through the gates upon my arrival."
"It shall be done, Madam. I shall stand guard day and night, and shall not leave my post until I kneel before you at your arrival."
So the queen dismissed Sir Strongbow, who made his preparations, and traveled to the summer castle, four days' and nights' ride from the winter palace.
A few weeks later, Sir Strongbow stood proudly before the gates in his gleaming armor. The servants had been preparing for the court's arrival, and the castle's hushed winter slumber had given way to a buzz of activity that drowned out even the froglings chirping their spring songs at night.
As the noble knight surveyed the road, he spied a bent figure slowly making its way toward the castle. The figure moved closer and took the form of a grizzled old woman carrying a sack of potatoes. As she passed before the castle gates, the woman suddenly tripped on a stone, and fell forward, spilling her sack all across the road.
"Oh! Sir Knight," the woman called, "I have spilled my family's food all over the road. My back aches and these old bones are tired and weak. Will you kneel down and help me gather these potatoes?"
"A thousand pardons, good lady, but I must not leave my post except to kneel before the queen."
So Sir Strongbow kept his watch while the old woman slowly and painstakingly picked up her potatoes and continued down the road.
The weeks passed by, and the spring rains poured onto the castle and Sir Strongbow at its gates. Day in and day out, the noble knight never complained or abandoned his post. I must faithfully await the queen's arrival, so that I may kneel at her feet to welcome her, he thought.
One day, the rain broke but left heavy clouds hanging over the castle. Sir Strongbow spied a man and his horse pulling a cart full of wares down the road to market. The rains had left the road muddy and full of potholes. As the man's cart passed by the castle gate, it sank into the mud and wouldn't budge.
"Sir Knight," called the man, "my cart is stuck in the mud, and I must get my wares to market! You look a strong fellow, will you kneel down help me lift my cart from the mud?"
"Begging your pardon, my good man, but I must not leave my post except to kneel before the queen,"
So Sir Strongbow stayed in his place, refusing to leave in case the queen should come along at that very moment. The man struggled and struggled, and finally pulled his cart from the mud. Exhausted, man and horse continued on their way.
The weeks continued to pass, and the cool weather gave way to warm, and then hot. The sweltering sun beat down on the noble knight in his armor, but he stayed ever in place, watching for his queen. I know not what I would do, should the queen come along and find me away from my post, unable to kneel at her arrival.
Finally, as the sun began to sink toward the horizon on the first day of summer, Sir Strongbow heard a faint noise- far down the road, but moving closer. As he watched, the knight spied a group of footmen and heralds moving down the road, with the royal carriage following close behind. The queen's procession! She's arrived, thought Sir Strongbow. After months of waiting, he would kneel before his queen and welcome her to the summer castle, which he had watched over through rain, heat, and long, lonely nights.
As the procession slowed to a halt, the carriage door opened and the queen stepped down to the road. Sir Strongbow was bursting with great pride as he began to speak a greeting:
"My queen, it is my great honor to welcome Your Majesty to your summer castle. Humbly, I kneel before you and--"
Sir Strongbow began to kneel, and found that he could not do so. The joints of his armor had rusted in place from the harsh weather.
"Is something wrong, Sir?" asked the queen.
"I-I'm terribly sorry, Your Grace," stammered the knight, "but I cannot kneel before you. My armor, it seems, has rusted in place awaiting your arrival."
"Rusted... in place?" repeated the queen, clearly confused. "Surely you must have moved in all these long weeks since you arrived. Did no poor soul pass by these gates, requesting your assistance with some troubling matter?"
"Well... well yes, Madam. An old woman dropped her potatoes, and a man's cart became stuck in the mud. But I had to refuse them assistance. I pledged not to move from my place until I knelt to welcome you."
The queen stood for a long moment, considering her loyal knight's words. Finally, she began:
"Good Sir Strongbow, do you not see? As queen, I care for all the people of this country. As a knight in my service, you must do the same- your loyalty must be not only to me, but to all. In your pride at kneeling before me and me alone, you have forgotten your responsibility to the people of this kingdom. Had you moved from your post to help my subjects, you would have served the kingdom while also serving its queen. Your refusal to kneel before the lowliest has left you unable to kneel before me."
Sir Strongbow's pride turned to shame as he thought on these wise words. The queen knew that her knight's heart had been in the right place, and that her lesson had not fallen on deaf ears. So she brought the royal blacksmith to oil and loosen the joints of Sir Strongbow's armor, and he could move once more.
For the entire summer, Sir Strongbow sought to complete the most thankless and undesirable tasks, always ready to offer a helping hand even to the humblest of servants. And, for the rest of his days, he never forgot that by serving the lowest among us, we honor and serve the greatest of us.
Thanks for reading.