Earlier this week I had the brilliant idea to pop into Dominick’s for some milk and bananas on my way home after a grueling 90 minutes of hot yoga when I found myself stuck in a particularly slow checkout line at the grocery store. I will not reproduce here the thoughts that ran through my head as I watched the cashier struggle to work the register and customers struggle to understand the intricacies of our monetary payment system while cradling two awkwardly shaped items in my exhausted arms because I had not felt it necessary to grab a basket. Once I had exhausted my range of exasperated sighs and exaggerated eyebrow raises in solidarity with everyone around me also relegated to this tragic fate, I pulled out my phone to complain on Twitter. As I carefully considered the wittiest expression of my disgust, I realized just how ridiculous and terrible the thoughts running through my head actually sounded. Why on earth, I asked myself, would I want to broadcast to the world just how incapable I am of being mildly inconvenienced for ten minutes? I realized then that I might be least proud of who I am in these unfiltered moments when some external factor interrupts my idea of how my day should go.
It’s called being selfish, and it’s nothing new, for me or for any human being who has ever lived. Tony Kriz, who you may remember as Tony the Beat Poet from Blue Like Jazz, wrote this great essay for Out of Ur in which he describes an encounter with a disheveled man to whom he offers money for dinner. While attempting to demonstrate his thanks, the man accidentally knocks Tony’s phone to the ground, and both men watch as it shatters into pieces. What happens next both surprises and convicts:
Like the cry of the humpback whale came the gangly man’s voice from behind me. I spun to see him: body limp, jaw hung and clinched knuckles dug into the rubbery centers of his cheeks. “What have I done?! What have I done?” His eyes now fixed on the phone pieces scattered on the sidewalk. He couldn’t stop wailing. People stopped and gawked.
Then, in a moment for which I could not have predicted, nor could I take credit. I bent down at the waist. I got low enough so I could look up into the gangly man’s face and somehow snag his gaze. “Look at me. Look at me!”
Finally, he snapped from his horror and looked at me.
“Look at me. You are a person. Do you hear me? That is a phone, just a phone. You are a person. You are a person.”
Ugh. Right in the gut. I am sure I don’t even realize how often I prioritize objects, or worse, objectify myself, and relegate people to “objects of inconvenience,” as Kriz goes on to describe this tendency.
After deleting my first tweet, I changed it to something more confessional: “I am probably least proud of who I am when I am waiting in an exceptionally slow line at the grocery store.” Then I put my phone away and looked around at the people on whom I had been silently blasting every frustrated thought just moments before. The older gentleman in front of me, I noticed, was purchasing tampons, ice cream, and People magazine. He wasn’t a roadblack that stood between me and the rest of my evening. He was a man doing something kind for his wife, and he seemed happy and unselfconscious to be doing it. I smiled. I looked back and realized I had failed to put down a divider after my stuff so the woman behind me could begin placing her groceries on the belt. I rectified the situation and she thanked me, without a hint of frustration that she’d probably been waiting more than a few minutes for me to grab it for her. After finally making my way to the front of the line and paying as quickly as I could, the cashier looked at my receipt, then looked me in the eyes, and said “Have a nice evening, Miss Leonard,” as she handed it to me. She seemed obviously frazzled, as the line stretched back far beyond me. I smiled back. It was the least I could do.