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Prime Time: Lesson 25: '...The Power to Render Us Happy or Unhappy'

The line was long with last-minute Christmas shoppers at Kmart. Checkers had put in long days already with tense shoppers and rushed purchases.

Something was holding up the line I was in - probably a price check. My cart was filled with items. My daughter sat bundled up in her snowsuit in the kid-seat of the shopping cart. She was growing tired and warm and restless after a long afternoon of shopping.

I took off my jacket and lay it atop the items in my cart. Other shoppers had already shed their winter coats - unnecessary in the warmth of the store.

Why wasn't the line moving? I sensed my own irritation growing along with the impatience, frustration and exhaustion of the other shoppers in line.

I counted the carts in line ahead of me. I had moved up slightly in the past few minutes. Now only 12 carts preceded me. I considered calculating how many minutes it would take for me to reach the checkout, but decided it would only make me more irritated. Miserable as I was, I wouldn't have traded places with the tired checkers, clad in Santa hats. They scanned one item after another and dropped each into large plastic bags, all the while attempting to maintain their smiles and pleasant dispositions.

No one in line was conversing with anyone else, but a few were mumbling under their breath to a companion in line with them. I feared someone's frustration might hit the tipping point and we'd all be sucked into very non-Christmas-like behavior.

We had come to a complete standstill when I became aware of a man a few spots behind me in line. He was dark-skinned with jet-black hair and deep brown eyes. He appeared to be in his early 30s. His cart, loaded down like everyone else's, his anxiousness to be out of the store like everyone else's, he started to sing in a clear tenor voice, "Grandma got run over by a reindeer ..."

At first I worried for his safety. These shoppers might be close enough to that tipping point to strangle anyone who attempted humor. But what happened when he opened his mouth surprised all of us. The tension melted, shoppers laughed, the checkers smiled. He had sung a few lines of the song when another man entered the store, waved at him, and said, "Hi, Fred. How's it going?"

"Wonderful," Fred answered. "I love Christmas." Was it possible that he had said this without a hint of sarcasm?

Fred's friend smiled, got a cart, and headed toward the toy section. "Hey, Fred! Merry Christmas!"

"Yeah, Merry Christmas yourself," said Fred.

The tension having been broken, the shoppers just ahead of and behind Fred started up informal conversations. There was no complaining or sharing of frustration. Instead, Fred's song and words with his friend had shifted everyone's gears into a true Christmas spirit.

I was amazed at the transformation. Before long, I was visiting with the lady ahead of me and the gentleman behind me. It seemed a very short time, and I was up at the checkout, paying for my items, watching the clerk, wishing him a Merry Christmas, and loading my items back into the cart to take to my car.

"Merry Christmas," I said to the people in line behind me. A chorus of "Merry Christmas" echoed back.

I had never spoken to Fred, but as I left the store, I saw him laughing and talking to the shoppers around him. What he had done with his song and with his cheerful disposition was incredibly powerful. I wanted to thank him, to acknowledge him - something - but working my way backward would have been impossible.

As we are immersed in the Christmas season, it is easy to feel the stress build, to let the lack of time, the lack of sleep, the lack of money dampen our spirits, but Scrooge taught us many years ago what Fred (coincidentally bearing the same name as Scrooge's cheerful nephew in "A Christmas Carol") reminded me during that shopping experience almost 20 years ago:

"He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune." -- Scrooge, Stave 2, "A Christmas Carol."

During this holiday season - and all through the year - on any given day, at any time, even with complete strangers, we have the power, through our words, actions and attitudes, to render others happy or unhappy. What a simple but life-changing lesson.