Jesus and Krishna make the 9-to-5 bearable
DESPITE MY dad's efforts at interfaith communion, in moments of weakness my mind only reaches for the two religious traditions I know best: Hinduism and Christianity.
If I know I'll have a tough day at my customer service job, I'll read my English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita on BART. The Bhagavad-Gita, or "Song of the Lord," chronicles a warrior questioning the rightness of war and a god who explains the meaning of life. Arjuna accepts Krishna's teachings and decides to fight.
I sympathize with Arjuna. Customer service personnel, like soldiers, do our "tours of duty" on "the front lines" and "in the trenches."
Arjuna asks Krishna why he has to do things he doesn't want to do, such as kill his cousins. I ask why I have to help rude people get their refunds. Krishna answers: we all have to do our duties.
"Perform actions, firm in discipline, relinquishing attachment; be impartial to failure and success — this equanimity is called discipline," Krishna says in the Barbara Stoller Miller translation.
The Gita helps, but it doesn't provide unalloyed solace. Arjuna has to fight because he's a warrior, born into the kshatriya caste. Krishna's teachings defend the caste system, which I abhor. The Gita doesn't help me decide what career I should choose; it's less "What Color Is Your Parachute?" and more "The Color Of God's Parachute."
Since I have chosen my duty, for now, Krishna tells me to perform it well, remaining stoic in the face of tedium and the occasional profanity.
Yes, profanity. A few customers of the online service I work for throw obscenities at me over 30-second frustrations — forgotten passwords, e-mails misfiled as spam — and it wears me down. Sometimes I can laugh it off, remembering Gary Larson's "The Far Side" cartoon in which God accidentally knocks over a jar labeled "JERKS" while making the world. And sometimes it hurts that customers forget there's a human on the other end of the phone.
So I console myself with supernatural revenge fantasies. Hinduism doesn't help me with those. Hindu gods usually kill evil humans or use clever rhetoric to turn the offenders toward humility and benevolence.
Neither of those is really a hellish punishment.
No, for descriptions of torment, I turn to the Western tradition of Christianity. Dante wrote that the liars and the greedy would go to hell. Oh, the place in the underworld I'd reserve for the truth-fudging whiners who want a refund after the 30-day free trial window closes.
I'm not fair to Christianity. The New Testament itself has much more cheering passages for the emotionally assaulted.
"Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth."
Does it count as meekness if it takes a few deep breaths to keep me from wrath? If the customer on the other end of the line makes lewd or racist jokes, or demands I break company policy because "no one reads the small print," sometimes I put him on hold so I can curse at him.
That's not very meek.
But at least I put him on hold first.
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
I can't turn the other cheek and give away shirts and coats to people who are trying to take them, since my company's cheeks and coats and shirts are not mine to give. But I can respond to my ruder customers in compassion, not resignation. I can remember that we are all sinners, that I too have talked on my cell phone while picking up takeout.
Oh, but even in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tempts me.
"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
I know I shouldn't take that line as license to slack off. I know I should find a career that doesn't feel like toil, that feels as natural as growing like grass.
But, while I am in this morale-sapping job, I will stay compassionate and stoic. As I cast about in my favorite religious traditions, sometimes one rewards me. I'm not sure whether this counts as salvation by works or by grace, but a customer recently wrote me:
"Anyone as prompt as you are will surely go to heaven."
You can e-mail Sumana Harihareswara at email@example.com.