Visiting my local supermarket to buy a well-earned—I woke up that morning, didn’t I?— macaroon, I approached the bakery counter with delicious anticipation. I was in no hurry and began enjoying the wait created by an off-in-dreamland clerk behind the display case. He was a young guy, probably no more than seventeen, and had that geeky-gangly way of boys who have yet to fit in their bodies. He was facing towards me, only a few feet away, in fact, but was off in wonderland—maybe dreaming of sex, video games or sports, perhaps all three— while half-heartedly packing some cream puffs. I gave him time. Like I said, I was in no hurry. But it was more than just the leisurely pace I had set for myself that made me patient. I felt akin to him.
There have been times in my on and off retail career where the last thing I wanted to do was serve a customer. It usually arose apropos of nothing. It was more like my daily quota of being at another’s beck and call had been reached, that one more “how can I help you” would have put me over-the-edge, created an indictable situation where there would be no turning back, no forgiveness given; no wry smiles shared. The problem, of course, is that it’s my job; so what do I do?
Over the years I have created various strategies for this problem but I have found the simplest is just to pretend I don’t see the customer. This not only gives me time to compose myself but also takes a small iota of power back—I’m the one in charge of my time, thank you very much, I’ll serve you when I am darn well ready to. Sure, it’s slightly passive-aggressive but as running out of the store in a wild rampage is generally out of the question, I figure it’s the least of my trespasses.
With this in mind, I gave the young feller some time. Who am I to complain if he was utilizing one of my yet to patented strategies... all the power to him. And, even if he was just traversing galaxies, he was having a pleasant moment in a humdrum job. So be it.
Then I was joined by another patron.
He was a man about my age, dressed in suit, tie and a stick, likely placed where the sun don’t shine. He looked at the kid, then at me, and with a smirk layered with a healthy dose of sarcasm commented that there seemed to be no one working that day. I shrugged and said, give him time, he’ll be here soon enough. His response was to bang the bell and yell: Hey! Hey!
You don’t have to be rude, I said.
Oh, f*ck off, said he.
And to my shame, I sunk to his level and told him to do the same. Supermarket rage at its finest.
I’ve experienced this type of impatience first hand when I worked for the Big Box hardware store. As a cashier I was often the butt of impatient sighs, not-so-subtle glares and continuous time checks on the wrist—and that, mind you, was when I was on the top of my game in speed and efficiency. (Go to The Modern-Day Renaissance Woman for a short but apt description of those who wait in line.) Some people, important people, that is, with important things to do, seem to consider standing in line for more than ten seconds a venal sin. But I feel it’s more than that. Supermarket rage is a symptom of a society failing to understand and be compassionate with the universality of the human condition.
I thought again of this incident at the supermarket after listening this past week to CBC Reads where five celebrities each defended a novel that they felt Canadians needed to read next. I was particularly struck by Humble The Poet’s defence of Fifteen Dogs. In the book, several dogs are gifted with human consciousness. What follows is the careful study of the human condition.Moreover, the poet argues that intelligence does not necessarily equate with evolution. It is a gift, he says, and a fleeting one at that.
"Everybody in this room has regrets, anxieties. Everybody in this room is struggling with the thoughts in their head, which ones they should believe [and] which ones they should not. Everybody in this room struggles with jealousy, irrespective of their race, their gender, their orientation, their economic background."
But what struck me most was when he defended the novel against the other books’ themes including that of climate change. He said, and I paraphrase, that to understand and begin resolving any of the issues that we face today is to know that we—humans—are the root cause. Only when we “know thyself” can we look at what internal changes need to be made to affect changes in our external environment.
What more needs to be said? Until we understand and have compassion for our (and everyone else’s) human frailties, we will, at the very least, descend into the inanities of supermarket rage and, at the most, continue to travel at breath neck speed into the tragedies of forced migration, violence and climate change.
Our innermost issues are reflected in the world's problems. We cannot solve the latter without taking the time to look within.
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