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Red flag alert: I've got mail for you!

Originally printed in the Christian Science Sentinel

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A few years ago, one of the semi-rural neighborhoods on Nantucket, about 30 miles off the southeast coast of Massachusetts, was ablaze with red flags. And the local post office was also seeing red.

You see, they weren't really flags. They were those cute little metal indicators, colored red, that you click up to alert mail carriers that you have items for collection.

A zealous friend of mine, new in the community and just longing to do something for the neighborhood association she had joined, offered to help in any way members needed. And as so often happens with these associations, in a matter of weeks she was the new president.

Determined to impress, she decided to save the association a few dollars. "Why waste the postage," she reasoned, "when I could drive around and drop the notices in people's mailboxes. I might enjoy putting up those pretty little flags, even though the houses are widely spaced along sandy roads and still mostly unoccupied so early in the season. Perhaps I'll meet a few of my new neighbors. If not, at least they'll know they have mail - important mail."

Well, the flags did look pretty - but not to the mail carrier. After he'd made 27 detours across this scarlet landscape to pick up 27 fliers that weren't meant for the postal system at all, that's pretty much how his face looked - scarlet.

It was several days before my friend's totally unselfish, totally innocent, albeit somewhat naive - and, strictly speaking, illegal - escapade had been satisfactorily explained to the postmaster, and the red flags laid to rest. He accepted her apologies and soon forgave her.

We've all had experiences like that when we don't yet know the system. When innocence on our part - rather than naiveté - has brought a fierce rebuke or stormy resentment from a person who has chosen to think the worst about our behavior.

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