A quick trip to the supermarket at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon. You rush around grabbing the few bits you need, your mind full of a half-recalled shopping list. Your eyes are blind to those around you until the moment they loiter a moment too long at the shelf you want to browse. You tut at the parent whose child is lying face down in the aisle, screaming and kicking. You stamp impatiently at the self-checkout while the gentleman ahead of you scans his items. Carefully, patiently, slowly. Then you whizz through, beep-whirr-ding, and you’re away. You slalom through children and trolleys and charity collection points, and then get stuck at the door behind an elderly lady who is leaning painfully on her trolley, shuffling on. Finally a gap opens, and out you go. Jump in the car, and you’re off.
These days my three year old insists on accompanying me whenever I pop into the supermarket. It’s a pain, to be honest. It slows me down. We can’t slalom and weave. We can’t push past obstacles and squeeze through gaps. We can’t scoot around someone and zoom ahead: his legs don’t work that quickly. I spend most of my time and energy trying to protect him from the trolleys and shoppers to whom he is invisible.
But it is also a great blessing. It gives me time to see things, to hear things, to take notice.
I submit to the discipline of standing behind someone in an aisle and waiting my turn to pick a tin from the shelf. As I wait, I treasure the feeling of my boy’s little hand in mine. And I notice the trolley of the person I am standing behind. It is full of ready meals for one, crowned by a bulging paper bag from the pharmacy.
As we queue at the self checkout, I can chat to my boy about any old nonsense. And I notice the man in front, emptying his wallet of coppers and silvers to pay for four cans of the cheapest own-brand lager. He’ll go home and drink that alone: sat in his coat with the curtains closed and the heating off.
Leaving the store, I watch my boy mimicking my steps, full of life. I resign myself to walking slowly behind the lady who leans on her trolley for dear life. And I notice her ankles. Swollen, and angry, and ulcerated.
Shops may bring out the worst of us: our intolerance, our selfishness, our impatience.
I am ashamed at how little I notice of others, until I open my eyes.
I am appalled at my own pushing and shoving.
I am embarrassed by my snap judgements and my impatience.
If shops are the temples of our time, then we go there to worship a god who cares little about the slowest, the weakest, the poorest, the smelliest, the loneliest, the nosiest.
Our temper is short and our steps are quick.
Our eyes are closed and our hearts are cold.
As gathering places, shops offer little to those who are seeking community, kindness, and understanding. Our basic need of these things gives rise to the deepest cries of our hearts. We try and find solace in the things we buy as we push and shove through the shop, but the desperate truth is that nothing we spend money on can fill the gaping care-shaped hole in our spirit.
But shops also offer us some of our greatest opportunities to show kindness, tolerance and understanding. A friendly smile for the young mum or dad whose toddler has had enough. A helping hand for the frail gentleman struggling with his bag of tins. An extra bag in the foodbank collection. A few words of encouragement for the member of staff monitoring the malfunctioning self-checkout.
It is shops that bring us together with those who cause us discomfort or inconvenience. If we are the ones who can walk away from the smell, the poverty, the noise, the disturbance, then perhaps it is within our gift to do a much greater thing. What would it cost us to dip into our reserves of patience, grit our teeth, flex our (underused) tolerance muscles, and simply notice, and understand?
We can’t escape from everything that offends, annoys, irritates, or disturbs. Nor should we have any right to do so. This is about looking after one another. Seeing beyond our own comfort and reaching out to others with a shared humanity.
I am still learning and still trying. But I hope that my shopping habits will bring out the best in me, so that those around me in the aisles might flourish, even for a fleeting moment.