I used to watch The Walking Dead, so I know what chaos looks like. I catch the stories online every hours-after-Thanksgiving of people rioting in Walmart over the five-dollar flat screen TVs; I’ve seen enough disaster movies to know what happens when angry, scared, frustrated people feel as if they are pitted against each other for things like water and batteries. Only this wasn’t a day before a hurricane hit, this was a pretty ordinary Saturday afternoon at a local Target—cars stacked to the outer edges of the parking lot, not a single cart to be found, and lines for the check-out lanes that stretched out of sight beyond racks of Halloween candy and novelty T-shirts. Good lord. What was I doing here?
Like everyone else wandering around the store like Zombies, I was there to procure junk I “needed.” Managing to find an abandoned cart, I quickly rounded up the stuff—paper towels, mouth wash, trash bags, dish soap—that seemed particularly vital to have that day. Maybe that was part of what made the atmosphere already intense, that sense of feeling driven by needs that aren’t real needs at all, but are part of things we do to insulate our lives from connection, from ourselves.
I scanned the check-out are to find the shortest line possible (not very) and took my place with the rest of humanity who were in varying stages of distress, anger, and resignation. A woman in one of the lanes to my right steered her cart to where she thought was the end of the line only to be told, loudly, that she was “cutting.” Grumbling, I watched her wrench her cart away, banished to the outer limits of the line. Another person started yelling as the cashier’s light winked out signaling that the lane was closed, leaving a ton of people stranded. In my own line, I felt my irritation on the up-tick as I watched the couple in the process of checking out dump all kinds of annoying, “necessary junk” on the conveyor belt—boxes of crackers, a clock radio, a case of mason jars (oh Gawd, you’re making centerpieces!)—and then proceed to open a Target charge account. People have been stoned for lesser infractions. What was I doing here?
Then I heard a woman talking loudly on her phone from somewhere in a line behind me. “I won’t have time to wrap it when I get home,” she said. Her voice was already raised, her tone clipped, the exchange obviously tense. I casually glanced behind me to see where the voice had come from. The woman was leaning on her cart; a boy who appeared to be maybe seven or eight years old sat in the front, playing with a toy he was no doubt promised to keep his shit together so that mom could get through this shopping trip. The person on the other end of the phone argued something back and I heard her say in a voice that was close to a shout: “Why can’t you just be a partner and help for once?”
A lot of us were irritated, pressed for time, impatient, indignant over our personal inconvenience, the great, self-righteous price we pay for all the junk we “need.” But who was really struggling here?
Why can’t you just be a partner and help for once? I couldn’t unhear that sentence. The small skirmishes waged in our relationships eventually add up to an outbreak of war. I felt this woman’s pain and loneliness, her frustration with being overworked and under appreciated, the plea wrapped in that statement was unmistakable: see. me.
After I put my bags in the car, I went to return my cart. The woman on the phone had parked next to the carriage return. The fight she had with the person on the phone spilled over to her son. Yanking him out of the cart, she hollered at him to hurry up and get in the car. He chattered on the way kids that age do, oblivious and unawares. She opened the door and herded him inside, talking over him, “Get IN, get in NOW, c’mon! C’MON!”
I stood there for a fraction of a second as I pushed my cart up against the others in the corral. I wanted so badly to say something, but there was nothing I could come up with that didn’t sound intrusive or even insensitive. What did I know about this person’s life? What could I possibly have to offer that would make a difference? Why should I make this my responsibility? I released the cart and walked back to the car; she slammed the passenger door and rushed around to the driver’s side, gunning the engine
It’s not that we don’t see one another. It’s that we don’t always know the way past just seeing to acknowledging to connecting. We’re scared, we’re overwhelmed, we’re trying to get it right and not cause more pain in our attempt to show up. It’s an incredibly awkward first date. So we often do nothing or very little or we look around to see if there is someone else who might be braver, stronger, more willing to wade into this heart space to intervene. Someone who can go first to help the rest of us follow.
We stand in the waiting line alone until we realize we’re all together.