A mistake at McDonald’s

by Jill Gaulding

Chaplains on the Way offers some spiritual practices, such as the weekly meditation and monthly labyrinth, at the Waltham church where it is officed. But most of its work is done “on the way,” out in the locations where community members gather. McDonald’s is a key site. Each Tuesday and Wednesday morning, from about 7:30 to 9:00 a.m., one or two COTW chaplains go to the Waltham McDonald’s and talk with community members there. It’s a small McDonald’s and a large community, so often it seems like we fill up the whole space. It’s a great opportunity for conversation and relationship-building, both in small groups and one on one.

Jill and Becky

As one of the many “chaplaincy adjacent” things we do, we offer to buy beverages (or if folks are hungry, items off the dollar menu) for any member of the community who would like them. To handle the accounting, we use McDonald’s gift cards that COTW has purchased. Sometimes we pop up from a table where we are sitting and purchase items for someone who has just come in or sat down nearby; other times we are up at the counter for a while, talking with people and purchasing a bunch of items all at once.

Early one Tuesday morning last September, shortly after I’d begun working for COTW as a chaplain intern, I was standing near the McDonald’s counter with Reverend Becky and a large group of community members. It seemed everyone wanted coffee: iced, black, “five and five,” and so forth—it could be hard to keep track of what people requested. But I couldn’t actually help Becky with the purchasing, because I was such a new intern, I hadn’t gotten my own McDonald’s card yet.

As I stood there talking with people, I realized I also wanted a coffee of my own, because I needed the caffeine. Some people might drink coffee for the flavor, but for me, it was clearly a drug. I knew if I didn’t have coffee, I’d be distracted, and later I could get a headache.

Though Becky and I hadn’t talked much about the topic of “how to buy items at McDonald’s,” I also knew from the previous week it would be perfectly fine for me to ask her to buy me a coffee on the COTW card. But as I looked at the big group of community members that had gathered behind Becky at the left-hand register, and then at the right-hand register that had no line at all, I made a split-second decision: I would just go buy myself a coffee. That way, I told myself, I wouldn’t be putting the charge ($1.07 for a small coffee) on the COTW budget. Plus, I’d be freed up to go sit down, if that would make more sense, given who was sitting where and who seemed to want a conversation that morning. With these thoughts in mind, I went up to the free right-hand register, ordered a coffee, paid with my credit card, and then paused to decide what to do next.

In that moment, I realized I had made a mistake, because I suddenly felt (as I would put it inside my own head) really shitty. There was something wrong with the decision I had made—something unskillful—and I would need to figure out what it was.

Initial reflections:
Later that day, I spent time reflecting on the incident. Why had I felt so shitty about my decision? I realized there were a number of reasons. For one, it was because I had lied to myself about my reasons for going to the other register and buying my own coffee. I wasn’t really trying to save COTW $1.07, nor was it really a problem for me to be “tied up” waiting for coffee (it would have been fine for me to keep talking to people gathered behind Becky, and if I had needed to sit down, Becky could have brought me the coffee later). No, my real motive was my impatience to get my coffee. And why was I impatient? Because of my addiction to caffeine. And then, because of my economic privilege, I could act on my addictive impulse the second I had it; I did not have to wait to get coffee, if I didn’t want to. And that, in turn, was the ultimate reason that I felt shitty: in the guise, inside my own head, of doing a helpful thing, I had actually acted in a way that could make others in the community feel bad—feel separate or less-than or impotent or stigmatized, because I had demonstrated, rather vividly, that they needed to wait in line for a coffee on the COTW card, and I did not.

I don’t know exactly which Tuesday in September that was, but I do know that I have not had any coffee, or tea, or any caffeinated beverage, since then. It has actually been easy for me to give up caffeine, because I had such a powerful motive to do so. I never wanted to make a mistake like that again, and I knew the chances would at least be diminished if I wasn’t in the grip of this particular craving, this caffeine addiction.

My experience, both of the incident itself and of my reflection upon it, seemed to bear out words I’d read in one of the books assigned for a class called “Meaning Making”: “Theological reflection changes lives. [It] slows us down…and creates a climate for grace to transform us. When theological reflection works it helps us to act a little differently.”[1] I did feel that my life had been changed and that something like grace had transformed me. Certainly, from that point on, I acted a little differently.

Defining what’s “theological”:
We might have to squint a little bit to see why my “meaning making” involved, not just bare reflection, along the lines of “thinking it over,” but specifically theological reflection.

Certain aspects of the incident might seem to lend themselves to theology more than others: the fact that I’d lied to myself, for example, and might have made others feel less than, and perhaps also the bare fact of my caffeine addiction. These aspects seem moral (or rather, immoral), so it’s not difficult to imagine looking at them with a theological eye. If I were a Christian, I might call upon the Ten Commandments, or on Jesus’s instructions to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) But I am a Buddhist, not a Christian, so these types of resources—though I appreciate them and would rely on them in chaplaincy—aren’t the most relevant to me, personally.

Surprisingly, perhaps—and I say this based on a subsequent conversation I had with Reverend Becky—the most pertinent religious word in everything I have written above is the word “skillful.” At least, this is so if your religion is Buddhism. To Buddhists, skillfulness is a key religious concept. Indeed, in the original Pāli, the language of the Buddhist scriptures, the word that is often translated into English as “good” is kusala. For example, kusala is the word that’s used in the second of the “three pure precepts” that Zen Buddhists vow to practice: I vow to practice all that is good. But the full meaning of kusala is centered in the notion of skillfulness. “Wholesome,” “virtuous,” and “good” are secondary meanings. Thus, it may be more accurate to say that Buddhists vow to be skillful.[2]

This is not as strange as it might sound, once you realize how Buddhists think skillfulness arises. To be skillful, you need to be mindful: fully present in each moment. Moreover, you need to be free of the three poisons: craving, aversion, and delusion. If you can be fully present in each moment, free of all craving, aversion, and delusion, then you can then act as a bodhisattva, entirely compassionate, with all of your attention on the needs of others. This is what skillfulness means, and it is at least as demanding, as religious aspirations go, as the aspiration to love others as Jesus loved us.

So, what was theological about my original reflection? Certainly, I would say, it was theological to consider how my lying to myself caused harm, and how that lying in turn was rooted in craving, which, along with aversion and delusion, is the cause of all suffering according to Buddhist doctrine. But there was also theological reflection involved simply in my being mindful of the thoughts that I had as I made the decision to buy my own coffee, and in being mindful of feeling shitty right afterwards. These moments of mindfulness were skillful, even though my decision to buy my own coffee was not. There was theological reflection involved in pausing to think through how one thing had led to another, from a Buddhist perspective, and there was theological reflection involved in my aspiration to be more skillful in the future.

Ongoing meaning-making:
Following up on my initial reflection, I was inspired to continue studying pertinent Buddhist doctrines. I looked for words that could help me better understand what it means to be mindful and what it means to let go of cravings and aversions. Among many resources, I found two verses in my Zen community’s liturgy helpful. One, from the Sutta Nipata, is called “Lose the Greed for Pleasure”:

Lose the greed for pleasure.
See how letting go of the world is peacefulness.
There is nothing that you need to hold on to,
And there is nothing that you need push away.[3]

The other, from Daito in The Roaring Stream, is called “No Umbrella”:

No umbrella;
getting soaked.
I’ll just use the rain
as my raincoat.[4]

Ongoing transformation:
Meaning making and theological reflection had changed me. If nothing else, I was no longer a coffee drinker, and I hoped that helped me to be a better chaplain in the ensuing months, particularly as I continued to spend time in the early mornings at McDonald’s and at the COTW breakfasts we held at the day center all winter long.

There were other changes in my life as well, in the wake of this one, but space does not permit me to list them all here. The most dramatic example is probably this: after decades of resistance, I have finally become a vegetarian. But actually, this change presented something like the opposite of my coffee problem: How could I become a vegetarian and still be a good COTW chaplain, given that I had been sharing meals each week at the Salvation Army and at the soup kitchen? After much theological reflection, the conclusion I reached was that it would be most skillful to be vegetarian when purchasing food for myself, but not when I was sharing these COTW community meals. In the words of Buddhist teacher Diane Eshin Rizzetto, regarding the precept of “not killing,” “The idea here is not to cease taking any life at all, but to face squarely our intentions and allow ourselves to make sensible [i.e., skillful] choices for each and every situation.”[5]

To conclude these reflections, I can also call upon the words of Diane Rizzetto. Regarding Buddhist teachings, she notes that living through them is “to live with their unveiling, like a koan, not just for a long time but for the rest of our lives.”[6] She explains: “The transformation we aspire to is similar to the stone in the river. The stone doesn’t know that it’s getting worn smooth, that its shape and contour are changing. It just keeps accepting the river.”[7]


[1] Patricia O’Connell Killen and John de Beer, The Art of Theological Reflection (Chestnut Ridge, New York; Crossroad Publishing, 1994), 111.
[2] Reb Anderson, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2001), 49.
[3] Greater Boston Zen Center Liturgy, available at https://bostonzen.org/liturgy/, at 32.
[4] Ibid. at 35.
[5] Diane Eshin Rizzetto, Waking Up to What You Do: A Zen Practice for Meeting Every Situation with Intelligence and Compassion (Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2005), 163-64.
[6] Ibid. at 183.
[7] Ibid. at 183-84.

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