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Joy Through a Killjoy
Photo: Matthew Bowden
I work in a shared office with several other women. It's a fun, laid-back environment. When we're not busy, we chat and laugh, we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and we've been know to inflict harmless pranks on our good-natured boss. I've always enjoyed the company of my co-workers—except for Killjoy Carol.

A tiny, birdlike woman with a pinched face, Carol never looked happy when she was at work. Not that we ever saw much of her face—her desk sat in a far corner of the room. Already somewhat removed from the group, within her first week of employment, she turned her desk so it faced the wall. The message was clear: Carol intended to work, not socialize.

I had always felt that the casual atmosphere of the office improved morale and job satisfaction. None of us were slackers, and we never allowed personal matters to take precedence over work tasks. Carol was the only person who refused to relax—or to simply be friendly.

With Carol, any simple request was met with a sullen, unpleasant response. When I asked to borrow her stapler, she snapped back that it was not her job to replace my lost supplies. We quickly gave up trying to include her in office parties or invite her to social events after work.

My co-workers often rolled their eyes at Carol and talked about her behind her back. Although Carol wasn't my favorite person, I never took part in the gossip, and I never used the nasty words I heard some people say. I knew it wasn't professional or kind to do so. I never really thought about the way I treated Carol. I just avoided here, and left it at that.

Speading Kindness

A few months ago, Marlena started working for the company. She was a fireball of energy who showed up with homemade muffins for everyone on her first day. She was instantly popular, just by virtue of being genuinely nice to everyone.

That first day, when Marlena walked over to Carol's desk with her basket of muffins, I knew she would be met with Carol's customary bad attitude. Sure enough, Carol snapped, "I don't want that!"

The rude rejection didn't faze Marlena one bit. She just smiled and said gently, "Well, in case you change your mind." She set the muffin on the desk and left before Carol could say anything more.

In the following weeks, Marlena carried out countless acts of kindness for everyone in the office. She was always there with a funny joke or a ready ear when someone was feeling down. Her scrumptious homemade treats made Monday mornings something to look forward to. As much fun as the office had been, Marlena made it immeasurably better by making us feel that she cared about all of us. It was as if we had suddenly gained a den mother.

Carol was not exempt from Marlena's caring approach. Marlena always went out of her way to invite Carol to join in the office celebrations. After many rejcetions, one day, to my utter shock, Carol accepted! She stood on the fringe of the group as we sang "Happy Birthday" and returned to her desk soon afterward. But the next time we celebrated a birthday, she was there again, looking slightly more at ease—and the next time she took a piece of cake, smiled, and spoke to the people standing closest to her. It seemed that Carol was finally coming out of her shell.

Had I ever honestly tried to make Carol feel welcome? I had not. I felt so ashamed of my timidity. A few sharp words had been enough to turn me away from someone I could have helped.

I said as much to Marlena a few days later. I told her how much I respected and envied her ability to reach out to others, even those who appeared not to want her kindness. "Marlena, how on earth do you do it?! I asked, awed. "And why?"

She laughted. "Honey, if you were as sad and lonely as I was for most of my life, you'd know the value of being reached out to. Someone was ridiculouly kind to me once, and it woke me up from a lifetime of bitterness. What else can I do but repay that debt every chance I get?"

I couldn't imagine this sunshiny woman ever being bitter or lonely. She was one of the warmest people I'd ever met. I realized that if simple kindness could make such a difference in one person, it might make a diffenece in another—namely, Carol. Sharing a hug with Marlena, I made my decision.

That afternoon, I approached the corner desk warily. "Hey, Carol, I was wondering—some of us are going out for dinner after work, and, well, would you like to join us?" I stammered through the invitiation, hoping she wouldn't react with anger.

Carol searched my face sharply for a moment, as if checking to see whether I was serious. Then her face softened. "Sure," she said quietly. "I'd like that."

It was a small step, but it was a beginning. Carol sat quietly at dinner, but she seemed to have a good time. Afterward she thanked me shyly for the invitiation. Since then, she's been more and more outgoing, and she seems worlds happier. But I owe Carol the greater debt—she taught me that reaching out to someone in need is a way to embrace joy.

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By Jessica Pierce. Reprinted with persmission from Signs of the Times, July 2006. Copyright © 2011 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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