The Wisest Man I Ever Met
The wisest man I ever met worked at Subway earning an hourly wage assembling and toasting sandwiches.
No, he was not buried nose deep in the tomes of academia in some prestigious university. He was not found sitting cross-legged in a monastery waiting for enlightenment. He was not, from what I could observe, a battle born veteran of life swathed in physical and emotional scars. He was a maker of reasonably priced, fairly tasty sandwiches, and he revealed to me a kind of wisdom that myself and many others so easily overlook.
I walked into this man’s domain one Sunday afternoon with a simple intention: to curb my hunger and rationalize eating healthy by including a few vegetables with my meal. I was accompanied by a friend, and as we entered the establishment we were immediately greeted by an amiable “Welcome to Subway”. The store was dead and we approached the counter.
“What can I get for you guys?” the man asked.
“I’ll take a twelve-inch oven roasted chicken on Italian.” I replied. My friend followed suite and placed his order.
“What are you guys up to today?”
“Just hanging out, enjoying the last day of the weekend before work and school start back up.”
“That’s what’s up. I’m just waiting until my shift is over so I can get back home to my girlfriend and fire up the Xbox. You want yours toasted?”
“Yes” I replied. “Can you add green chile to the sub before toasting it also? You folks got me hooked ever since you showed me that trick.” (At this point I feel the need to state that I’m a New Mexico native and LOVE my green chile…if you haven’t had it, you haven’t lived.)
“Hell man, I get paid by the hour. You can order whatever the heck you want and I’ll make it – it’s what I’m here to do.”
“I appreciate it” I said. “I worked in food service for a while and I never understood why some people complained so much about having to do something a little out of their way.”
“Yeah I don’t get that either. I’m happy to do whatever a customer wants because I’m grateful for my job. When I’m here, I’m here to work, and when I’m at home, I can do whatever I want. I like this job because it pays enough for me to live and buy new video games and that’s all I really need. Sure, I could save a bit more but I’m happy with my life. That’ll be $7.23 boss.”
My friend and I paid, received our packages of toasted bread and meat, thanked the man, and left.
Normally, I wouldn’t have thought much of this simple exchange and it would have been purged from my memory. I’ve been to hundreds of restaurants and can only readily recall a few dozen occasions. Something about this trip was different though.
The man was probably in his mid to late twenties and was not particularly noteworthy from a physical standpoint. He did not speak with an Alan Watts-esque articulation, nor did he strive to exhibit traits of character, wit, or personality that would astound an observer. He was, from what I could gather in such a short interaction, a fairly normal individual – he worked a simple job to support himself and lived a normal, inconspicuous life. What was not normal, however, was his keen sense of awareness, the energy he seemed to emit as he spoke and moved, and his grasp of some subtle truths of life.
He seemed perfectly content working at a job many elites and even college graduates would believe beneath them. He appeared completely aware of his position in the social hierarchy and not only accepted it – he embraced it. He was grateful to have the opportunity and ability to work and expressed a sociability that created a tangible atmosphere of comfort.
He appeared completely at ease, not exuberantly happy nor despondently discontent. He did not seem to be disillusioned by the narrative of pop culture or American Dream propaganda – he was content with himself, with his life, and did not feel the incessant tug for more.
He had his life, his job, his Xbox, and his girlfriend, and that was all he seemed to need.
Now, at this time, it would be easy to say “Michael, he was just a guy working at Subway. You completely overthought the interaction and made up a bullshit story about a guy that can’t possibly be true.” This would be difficult to argue.
Perhaps he is just as neurotic, anxious, and depressed as many people are. Perhaps he possesses an ocean of insecurities masked by the civility required to work a customer-service job. Perhaps he has grand visions for himself and his life, and sits in perpetual agony from having not yet achieved them.
I don’t know.
But I do believe that the energy, or vibe, or whatever you want to call it one gets from someone in a social interaction provides an indication of the health of their psyche and the level of their consciousness.
What made this man stand out to me was not that he was more intelligent, more successful, more articulate, more funny, or more anything…but that he was less everything. He was less anxious, less self-conscious, less disillusioned, less ambitious, and less caught up in all the bullshit that so many of us take too seriously. He had forged for himself a simple life with which he could be himself and enjoy the ride.
We each have, nestled within our psyches, a limitless desire for more. This is one of our best attributes as a species and it’s enabled us to achieve things that are, by all accounts, truly remarkable. This inherent drive of ours is compounded by the prevailing philosophy of our time.
I’ve grown up in America: The Land of Opportunity. I’ve been programmed to believe that the harder I work and hustle and push for greatness, the more successful I’ll be. Success is everything (so the narrative goes). It’s the ultimate expression of a human’s worth and lack of success suggests that one must be lazy, incompetent, or incapable. Forget that success is a mixture of good fortune, effort, timing, location, and many other variables – your value in society’s eyes is largely determined by your ability to measure up to traditional success standards (power, money, status, etc). It’s up to you to make a name for yourself and “be somebody”.
The problem with this ideology is that the chase for more – for more power, more money, more self-esteem, more sex, more anything – is fundamentally restricted by the limited nature of reality. We can never fulfill the entirety of our desire because A) we only live for so long, and B) our desire is always shifting. If spend our lives always chasing “more” (something that only exists in synapses of our brains) or resign our self-worth to the achievement of this illusion, we cripple ourselves from our ability to experience life.
The man I met at Subway was the wisest man I ever met because he purposefully made life simple. He did not need a Ferrari to prove he was valuable. He did not need a yacht full of cocaine to be happy. He did not need to be Tom Brady-handsome to feel worthy of a relationship. He was bought into life and was experiencing it exactly how he wanted, one Xbox game and well-crafted sandwich at a time.