The smell of compassion.

You see all sorts of things when you work with the public. You smell all sorts too.

I dread warmer days for this reason. Sometimes the counter is just not deep enough to suit. There is always the dilemma – body odor, or perfume? Both are bad for different reasons.

Strong perfume or cologne affects my asthma. I start having a hard time breathing, so I start to breathe very shallowly and sparingly. I’ll make the transaction go as fast as possible just to get them away from me. I think it would be rude for me to just walk away and take a deep breath and come back, but then it is rude to wear so much cologne or perfume that it makes breathing difficult. If you bathe daily and wear deodorant, you don’t need perfume.

But then, sometimes people use artificial scents to cover up the natural ones. That is much harder.

Sometimes the bad odor is a mix of smoking, not bathing, and drinking. If you drink alcohol often enough it comes out in your sweat. Sometimes it is the smell of poverty and desperation. Everything the person puts into their body is cheap. Sometimes the smell is so strong that even if the person isn’t standing there anymore, the smell is. It is like a bad ghost, haunting where they were.

It has to be hard to be in the skin of someone who smells this badly. Some seem to be totally unaware of it. They have gotten used to it. One patron seemed to be aware that he had terrible breath from smoking cheap cigarettes so he’d talk out of the side of his mouth. He’d sort of clench his teeth to talk. He’d then go outside to smoke yet another cigarette. His partner had an entirely different aroma. He smelled of some mixture of cheap cigarettes, gas-station food, and ferret. He seemed totally unaware of the funk that surrounded him. He checks out only DVDs and the smell permeates the plastic on the cases. There is nothing for that aroma except time. I wonder what the next patrons think when they get these titles.

I feel bad for all the people who smell really badly. I want to say something. I want to tell them that they don’t have to poison themselves with cheap food and cheap cigarettes and cheap alcohol. I want to tell them to not treat themselves so cheaply. I want to tell them that everything they are doing to fix their problems is actually causing more problems. I want to save them.

And I can’t. And I shouldn’t.

I’m sure that people wanted to save me when they saw me out doing my errands when I was stoned for ten years. I’m sure that when people saw me glassy eyed and mindlessly smiling they thought that something was wrong but it wasn’t kind to tell me. As long as I wasn’t hurting anybody, let it be. And so they did. I’m sure that I wouldn’t have listened to them anyway. I wasn’t in a place in my head where I could or would listen to anybody.

I am trying to be loving and compassionate, and serve people where they are and as they are, instead of where and as I want them to be. I’m trying to love them on their journey. I’m trying to understand that who they are now is the result of where they have been and I don’t know that story. I’m trying to understand that they are doing the best they can right now, and that even though it isn’t what I think is best, it is what it is.

It is hard. I want them to all slow down and love themselves enough to get off the Ferris wheel, the treadmill, the hamster wheel that our society gives us when it tells us we have to be more than we are. I want to tell them that they don’t have to keep doing it the way they are doing it, because my way is better.

And then I remember that I’m not being loving when I think this. I remember that to not let them make their own choices is to not let them be who they are. Who am I to tell them how to live? Each person has to grow their own way. Each “wrong” choice leads to openings and opportunities. I would not have learned to appreciate working out at the Y if I hadn’t been obese. I would not have learned the secret peace of being sober if I hadn’t been an abuser.

But here’s the trick. Even if they never stop smoking, or drinking, or eating unhealthy food, or doing any number of things I think are “bad”, I have to understand that is OK too. That is the hardest part. I have to know that they may stay just like they are, and that this may not be a stepping stone to health. They may not be a diamond in the rough. They may not ever be a flower in the making.

The ones who smell bad are just the ones whose choices result in that. There are plenty of people who make choices that don’t call attention to themselves, but I might disagree with if I knew.

I remember reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” many years ago. Well, I didn’t really read it. I read about a quarter of it. I couldn’t finish it because the narrator kept talking about how sad he was for the people he was with, that they weren’t as enlightened as he was. I knew then that such an attitude was, in itself, not enlightened, and I quit reading.

So now I’m trying to learn this lesson all over again. The minute I try to make someone else into my own image, I’m not respecting them. I can’t fix them. But more importantly, I have to learn that just because they are different from me doesn’t mean that they are broken.