Finding felicity in 15 percent

When I was 16, I undertook a strict regime of meditation in an effort to sort out the universe and become enlightened. At the end of the day, I would plop down on the floor with a blue cushion and my back pressed straight-as-could-be up against the wall. My hands would then work their way into the lotus mudra—corresponding thumb and pinky pressed together so the base of the palms form a compressed horseshoe while the index, middle and ring fingers flare outward like the petals of a sacred flower. Then came the hard part: the actual meditation.

One of the exercises I used to slide myself into detached observation of consciousness was called Maitri (roughly translated from Sanskrit as "loving-kindness"). The exercise starts by asking you to send love to the people that are easiest to love, so that eventually you can love the whole world. This first step should not be difficult.

Except that, for me, it was. Who did I know that was easy to love? Surely, it was not my family. And we didn’t have any pets; there was no adoring Sparky upon which I could shine my spiritual grace. Okay, my best friend Julie was easy to love, but that was only one person. Who else? I sat in deep, abiding frustration until the answer blossomed in my mind (or perhaps it was in my stomach): take-out delivery drivers.

Some might say that is a half-baked flash of spiritual insight, but those people have probably never considered to any depth what the role of the delivery person is. Very basically, they procure food and bring it to us with a smile, ideally at the expected temperature and with a minimum of elapsed time. This ability to cheerfully bear and transfer basic sustenance—it is a quality we seek out in friends, in neighbors and, if we’re being particularly honest, in good spouses.

Freud might say that delivering into our hands the essentials of nutritional survival was part of the symbolic function of the primal father, the Moses, who delivered us into monotheism. It is this character who we have since dethroned, decapitated and disavowed. Yet we get fleeting glimpses of our invented savior every time we open the door, pay for our pabulum and accept our manna from heaven.

It is a shame that Carl Jung never studied the way the icon of the food delivery person derives from the archetype of the father or the paternal. One wonders what he would make of the mountains of evidence provided in films we dare not speak of in mixed company, wherein the pizza-delivery boy can often be seen to play a seminal role in key advancements of the plot. Yes, food delivery people are easy to love.

But for a class of individuals so giving, we often forget to give back, or fail to do so adequately. We’re talking about gratuity, or tips in layman’s terms.

In the United States matters, of gratuity are voluntary, unlike places in Europe where a percent of the total expense is automatically added to the bill. We should embrace this freedom with a zealous sense of responsibility—sometimes giving more than expected, but never less. In the United States, the prevailing delivery tip rate is 15 percent of the total bill.

Some people have a hard time calculating 15 percent. I like to remember that for every $10 spent, $1.50 should go to tips.

If you’re like me, you have once or twice tried to justify a lighter tip by playing the struggling-college-kid card. The excuse goes something like this: right now I have so little money that it would be foolish to leave tips. The marginal utility I get from each dollar of my money is just too high. But someday, maybe sooner than later, I will have more money and then I will over-tip and balance some cosmic checkbook in the sky.

While this may be an expedient cover story which persuades an executive committee convening somewhere in my prefrontal cortex, it is neither sound nor kind decision-making. And let’s be honest, they wanted to be convinced anyway.

In fact, the wage structure of the food delivery work makes this kind of thinking quite cruel. States across the nation have promulgated wage laws that exclude waiters, waitresses, and food delivery drivers from receiving even the federal minimum wage. Any tipped worker can be excluded to some extent, and the Fair Labor Standards Act defines a tipped worker as someone who receives as few as $30 a week in gratuity. New York law allows drivers to be paid as little as $4.90 an hour. The rest of their pay comes from tips. So for the conscientious person, not tipping is not an option.

Whipping out an abacus and figuring out the amount your future self would have to pay in remuneration just isn’t a good answer. First of all, you’ll probably never encounter the same delivery people you under-tipped, so there is no chance of a real repayment for services rendered.

Second, we’re leaving a lot to chance here, aren’t we? Many things could happen to get between me and this wealthier, over-tipping self. What if I never get the corner office, or come down with a crippling disability? What if I get hit by a bus or even a delivery driver and then die? Think of all the unpaid service workers.

Another excuse I find myself bending toward relies on the idea of bad service. This one is a bit harder to resist. The thought is that if the food arrives late or isn’t the right temperature, then you can take it out on the delivery guy or gal and skip out on the little something extra. This seems reasonable and it probably is. But it also represents an utter lack of compassion.

At my job, and most others, workers are not docked pay below the minimum wage if the kitchen screws up or if there is heavy traffic. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the bad service is entirely the fault of the delivery worker. The food’s late and it’s cold; is it still all right to skip the tip?

I wouldn’t, and I’d advise you not to, either. Life is like this sometimes, and often it’s our opportunity to flex that compassion muscle—to see through the bad particulars of your day and grant love and kindness on another human who contains just as much of God as you do. Maybe, if we remind ourselves why others are so easy to love, then someday we can love the whole world.