I Want to be Elwood P. Dowd

“I’ve wrestled with reality for 30 years, doctor, and I’m proud to state I finally won out over it.”

Elwood P. Dowd was Jimmy Stewart’s character in the 1950 film Harvey. If you’ve never seen the film or the theater play, it is the story of a lovable man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey.

Yes, this is the guy I want to be like.

In my life, I’ve had to deal with a number of people who were, to put it simply, jerks. People who seem to have no patience, no compassion, and no concern for the feelings of others.

What do you do when you have to deal with jerks? There really doesn’t seem to be a clear answer on that. The only thing I’ve always known for sure is that I refuse to treat the jerks the way they treated me. That just perpetuates the cycle of misery and would just make me one of them.

That’s not going to happen with me.

But you can’t just sit there and take abuse, can you? When it’s a customer or client, you may not have much of a choice. If a customer is rude or impatient, it is still your job to deal with them. So what do you do? That’s where Elwood P. Dowd comes in. The guy is unflappable. That’s what I strive to be. Unflappable. Elwood is sweet and friendly to a fault. Sure, it probably means that he gets taken advantage of from time to time, but I really think that might be worth the risk of being kind as much as possible.

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “in this world, Elwood, you must be” – she always called me Elwood – “in this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

Kindness matters. It really does. I’ve come to realize that kindness makes a huge difference, no matter what job you have. If you’re a barista at Starbucks and greet customers with a snarl, you’re sending those people off to work in a bad mood, which they just might spread to others. If they’re greeted with a smile, they feel good and might pass that on as well.

“I always have a good time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.”

Over the weekend, I went to Ocean City, MD with my kids. We went out on a boat ride where we had friendly tour guides, including a nice kid in his teens or early twenties who went around and asked people if they wanted him to take group pictures of people on their cameras/ phones so they could all be in the photo. Sure, the kid works partially for tips at the end, but still it was a nice gesture. Just watching it put me in a good mood. His kindness mattered.

I’ve recently decided to make a career change. I was a paralegal for over ten years and I have decided that I would like to work in the medical field in an administrative capacity. Kindness certainly matters in that profession. Nobody likes going to the doctor. People are nervous. Scared. Politeness and patience on the phone and in the waiting room matters. Kindness and compassion can make people feel better at a time when they need it the most.

Still, sometimes it’s a fine line between being kind and allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. When Elwood is at a bar (which he often is…) another patron sticks him with the tab, calling out “Harvey will take care of it.” Elwood calls out “He’d be delighted!” I’m not sure I would go that far, but I really would love to have the patience that Elwood had.

“Harvey and I sit in the bars… Have a drink or two… Play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, “We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.” Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers – soon we have friends. And they come over… And they sit with us… And they drink with us… And they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar.”

It’s scary starting all over in a whole new profession. Of course writing will always be my “real” job, but I don’t want my day job to be just anything old thing. I don’t want to just kill time for 8 hours a day. I want to make a difference if it’s at all possible. A new job will be a challenge and I will certainly be faced with difficult patients. I want to face those challenges with a good attitude. I want to try repay rudeness with patience. I want to be able to smile when a patient is scowling. I want to help melt an icy heart, rather than stab an ice pick through it. It’s not going to be easy, but I think it’s worth it.
Spoiler alert. At the end of the film, Elwood’s family plans to have him committed and drugged to deal with his apparent delusions of the imaginary rabbit. The cab driver mentions how pleasant his drives to the sanitarium always are – before the treatment.

“I’ve been driving this route for 15 years. I’ve brought ’em out here to get that stuff, and I’ve drove ’em home after they had it. It changes them… On the way out here, they sit back and enjoy the ride. They talk to me; sometimes we stop and watch the sunsets, and look at the birds flyin’. Sometimes we stop and watch the birds when there ain’t no birds. And look at the sunsets when it’s raining. We have a swell time. And I always get a big tip. But afterwards, uh oh… They crab, crab, crab. They yell at me. Watch the lights. Watch the brakes, watch the intersections. They scream at me to hurry. They got no faith in me, or my buggy. Yet, it’s the same cab, the same driver and we’re going back over the very same road. It’s no fun. And no tips… After this he’ll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!”
Horrified at the idea of changing Elwood’s inherent sweet nature, his sister Veda snatches him back from the doctor.

“It’s our dreams, doctor, that carry us on. They separate us from the beasts! I wouldn’t want to go on living if I thought it was all just eating and sleeping and taking my clothes off…I mean, putting them on.”

I’ve come to realize that it really matters how well you do your job – no matter what your job may be. You can have a friendly attitude and smile with your co-workers, do your fair share or more of the workload, and make the experience – whether it be getting them a cup of coffee or prepping them for surgery – as pleasant as possible for your customers. It will be a struggle to try to do that every day, but it’s worth the effort. It sure beats being a jerk. You can’t control how people treat you; you can only control how you choose to respond.

I want to be like Elwood P. Dowd

Mailman: “Beautiful day…”
Elwood p. Dowd: “Oh, every day is a beautiful day.”