The Spirituality of Standing in Line

by Melannie Svoboda SND on July 1, 2013

The next time you’re standing in a line at the check-out, a fast food place, or a movie theater, take a minute to reflect on what you’re doing. Although standing in line can be a pain at times, the practice is really quite amazing. (I want to thank Barbara from Winchester, VA for sending me the article on standing in line by Matthew Malady in The New York Times Magazine.)

people in line

Think about it. You want something or need something. You see other people standing and facing the same direction. They are all waiting for the same thing you need or want. So you locate the last person and stand behind that person. That’s your spot in line. Soon others start standing behind you. Then the line begins to move forward. At some point you become the first person in line. It’s your turn–to purchase groceries, to order your food, to buy your ticket for the movie.

Notice, you do not have to arm wrestle someone or answer a tough question to determine who in the group goes next. No, you just stand in line and wait your turn. It’s as simple–and as beautiful–as that! The author of the article calls standing in line one of human beings’ “most noble collective achievements.” Why? First of all, it’s so fair. You wait your turn like everyone else. It’s democratic too. When we stand in line we are all equals. The middle-aged man in the three piece suit waits his turn behind the teenage girl in shorts and flip flops.

Waiting in line also underscores the fact that we are all in the same boat. Isn’t that an awareness we desperately need today? The ecological movement, for example, is rooted in the awareness that we are all inhabitants of the same “boat” called planet earth. This “same boat experience” can nourish our compassion and understanding. It can also bring people together and foster community. (We women often have to stand in long lines to use the restroom. I’ve had some great conversations with other women—often complete strangers—while waiting in line with them!)

But something is happening “in the world of lines.” Some places are allowing people to skip standing in line altogether–for a fee, of course. We see this practice at places such as airports, amusement parks, and ski resorts. You can buy line-skipping passes for $25 at Sea World San Antonio and $80 at Universal Studios Hollywood. Some people see this practice as “unfair” because it caters to the wealthy.

I said that standing in line seems “fair,” but are there times we should put fairness aside and freely give our place in line to someone else–perhaps an elderly person or someone with a disability or special need?

I’d be interested in knowing what you think about all of this. What has been your experience of standing in line?

Many years ago I read a parable about the Final Judgment. It described a large group of people standing in a long line waiting to get into heaven. They all have waited a long time–and the line has barely moved. They’re hot and weary. Suddenly they see an angel escorting a motley group of people to the head of the line. The people in line begin to grumble. Then they openly protest. “It’s not fair!” someone screams and others agree. standing in line 2“We’ve been waiting for so long!” yells another. “Those people should get at the end of the line–like we all had to!” hollers a third person. Soon the entire line is up in arms over the situation.  Suddenly a big gong rings. The crowd falls silent. Then St. Peter announces that the people in line have just had their Particular Judgment. Because they would not give a break to these other people–the poor and needy–they would have to wait a while longer before they could enter heaven. Why? Because their love was not yet expansive enough for heaven.

It’s a story I sometimes recall when I’m standing in line.

PS: Happy Fourth of July on Thursday! If you want to read something on freedom, see my blog “Reflection on Freedom” for July 2, 2012.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Magiera July 1, 2013 at 5:19 am

Great reflection about standing in line Sr. Melannie!

Waiting in line can be challenging for me at times but I find it is often a good time to pray for those who I wait with until it is my turn. We are all in it together.

Kathleen

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Dear Kathleen, I have a hunch that many people pray when they have to stand in line–especially for the people around them. Your response verifies that hunch! Thank you! Sr. Melannie

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Suzanne Sayer July 1, 2013 at 9:21 am

I am not the most patient in a line, but I take a deep breath and pray–it calms me down. I am always appreciative if some one with many items lets me go first if I have only a few; I return the kindness when I have many items. It is polite and generous to let others go first. Remember: Jesus said the first shall be last and the last first.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Dear Suzanne, I’m sure many of us can identify with how impatient we sometimes get when we have to stand in line and wait for something. But even while standing in line we can do kind acts–as you suggest here. I think Jesus would “people watch” if he had to stand in line. And then he’d engage the people around him in conversation, don’t you think? Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie

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Colleen July 1, 2013 at 9:53 am

I often joke to myself (or anyone else who will listen) that I always pick the wrong line. I can spot the line with the least amount of people but inevitably those same people have the most complex transactions. And of course it’s always worse when I’m in a hurry! Just this past weekend, I was out of town for my aunt’s funeral. I had taken my cousin shopping for clothes to wear for his mom’s service, a task he had been dreading and left until the last minute. It was a very emotional time and certainly not a pleasurable outing and we had finally finished selecting all that he would need. I was impatient to get done, it was getting late, I had driven over 5 hours that same day and just wanted to get some rest for the next day. Everyone in all the lines seemed to have baskets chock-full of items. I had just gotten out of a line that was going nowhere fast when I spotted an empty lane. I slipped into it as quickly as my cart with the rickety wheel would allow when I realized that an elderly woman and a younger woman were headed to that same line and I had pretty much cut them off. Even as I was thinking (uncharitably I might add) that I needed to get done and my nerves were all but shot, I backed out and let them ahead. They both looked me in the eye as they passed and thanked me quietly and sincerely. As I waited for them to complete their transaction, I listened to the younger woman kindly and respectfully ask her mom if she needed anything else and helped her load the cart. Her mother, obviously quite on in years with difficulty moving quickly, smiled at the cashier, joked with her a bit, carefully paid for her purchases and turned to grasp the cart for some added support as she and her daughter made their way out of the store. It was simple task they performed together but the patience, love and kindness I saw emanate from the two of them during that time was indeed a blessing to me and a message much needed at the time about doing for family with an open heart. Lines can indeed be a stressor if we let them, but they can also offer at time for reflection and prayer for those “strangers” around us. And Sister Melannie, your references to the “boat” and Kathleen’s reminder about being in this together reminded me of a framed print I have in my office of a small boat at sea during a violent storm and the quote by G.K. Chesterton reads, “We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.” Tucked into the corner of that same print is a slip of paper that reads, “Every encounter comes with the possibility of giving and receiving a blessing.” I need to remember that more often as I choose the “right” line! Colleen

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Dear Colleen, This is a beautiful little story. There are blessings everywhere, aren’t there? I think it was a real grace that you were so attentive to the “little drama” that was occurring ahead of you in line. Thank you for sharing your experience with us! Sr. Melannie

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Mary Schneider July 1, 2013 at 10:20 am

I have developed an outright enjoyment for standing in line. It gives me an opportunity to let someone go before me (always a good feeling), but above all I can talk to someone else who is patiently enduring the line along with me. Thank you for putting into words all of the advantages and blessing patient waiting can bring.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2013 at 2:41 pm

Dear Mary, You certainly have a positive view of standing in line. Good for you! And thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie

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marian July 2, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Things at work are not easy, I thought, until I rushed home one day to sign for a registered letter. I dashed in line behind a woman shuffling paperwork about as she waited for her turn in line. Next to the Post Office is a Laundromat. People coming and going hauling their wash back and forth. One of the poorest, dirtiest cities, borders my hometown. Some of my neighbors spend their whole lives shuffling papers to get the basics…So I had a chance when I was in line to get a reality check, to be thankful for my job, to be other minded (outside of my small world) and open to serve.
God bless you.
Thank you.
Marian

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 2, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Dear Marian, You certainly made good use of your time while standing in line. You heeded the call to be thankful for your job, to be more open minded, and to be more open to serve. That was time well spent! Thanks for sharing this with us! Melannie

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Gail July 6, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Since patience is a virtue, and one not that easy to attain, I’ve often reminded myself while waiting in lines that weren’t as short as I’d hoped, that here’s a simple but easy way to practice patience. Just “chill out” I tell myself, turn my thoughts to prayer and utilize this time for talking with God; or if the opportunity presents itself, chat with the folks behind us in line…and hopefully I’m getting better at it all the time.
When I know it will be a real long wait (like the driver license office) I come prepared with crossword puzzles, etc. and books, magazines.
That’s the beautiful thing about prayer, it can be practiced anywhere at any time and what better opportunity than in lines. Thanks for your helpful ideas.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 6, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Dear Gail, I talk to myself sometimes too. I like your “chill out!” And you remind us that the opportunity for prayer always makes itself available. Thank you for your wise words, Gail! Sr. Melannie

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