The Supermarket Effect

part of the butcher's job  L1052659

(Photo credit: Susan NYC)

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to really see other people in a supermarket?

It’s a weird little truth about human nature: we’re all still hunter-gatherers, there in the supermarket. Our higher cognitive processes break down when we walk through the automatic doors and grab a cart; it’s instant reptile brain. We have a list and a budget and no time to waste. Our eyes focus on the shiny, colorful shelves, searching for glimmers of what will bring us life.

We do that, and we miss the crazy diversity of life at this watering hole. We miss the single dad with three kids, pondering whether to buy the cheap or the healthy peanut butter while his progeny sneak boxes of Lucky Charms into the cart. We miss the older couple holding hands in the cat food aisle, the woman with swaying dreads whose cart blooms with produce, the man in the apron arranging pears and dreaming of being the next Cezanne.

We don’t see them as people anymore. We see them as traffic.

Don’t believe me? Try it. Even if you manage to notice others, obstructing the main aisle as you stop and stare, the next level is still a challenge: try making eye contact. I’ve found, eerily, that it does not work the great majority of the time, so well have we trained ourselves to ignore each other.

And the supermarket effect goes on and on, our half-willful forgetting of other people. I, as a pedestrian, forget there are people in those giant hunks of metal I’m trying to avoid. My survival mind refuses to acknowledge there’s at least one irreplaceable life inside each. I am quick to judge people for who they are now, right this moment, inexplicably forgetting they grew out of innocent children and will too soon return to the earth.

We live contentedly on a thin crust of soil and forget what a little distance separates us from simmering metal, from icy, airless space, from the untouched depths of the sea.

We go to the store to get what we think we need, but neglect our hunger for mystery. No, we don’t neglect it: we don’t even know it. How can we be so divorced from our deepest selves? Why do we keep eating what just makes us hungrier, all the while stifling our appetite for meaning and connection?

Reader, I don’t want you to go through life hungry. I want to feed you bites of the story that’s filled me, take a taste of yours. Thank God, I don’t have to hunt (yet) for food, and you are not my competitor. We both have life to share. Let’s let our eyes meet, and look, and smile. It’s free. And for a moment, in the middle of this world for sale, so are we.

Has a connection with a stranger fed your soul lately? How do you pay attention and respect to individuals in supermarkets or other impersonal places?


5 thoughts on “The Supermarket Effect

  1. I feel grateful that I’ve been set a great example by my mother and my dad’s mother. On both sides of the family, people who seek connections with strangers. My mom met one of her closest friends at Costco. My grandmother made a friend at Marshall’s. I’m usually too shy — like you say, forgetting that these are actually real people, and that they probably won’t bite if I say hello. That being said, I’m grateful to have worked and shopped at a community-centric grocery co-op: I almost always run into someone I know there, whether a coworker or a friend, and I’ve found it a welcoming environment in which to reach out to others. Being an employee, I’ve occasionally felt bold enough to chat up strangers about what they’re buying (even though I don’t work on the store floor). Thanks for the reminder to reach out more. 🙂

    • I wanted to add: My dad also sets a great example; he routinely asks people questions about themselves. One time when we were staying in a hotel, he would ask everyone we encountered in the elevator, “Where’s home?” You’d be amazed how willingly people open up, in a situation where it’s really not expected that people will converse with each other.

      • Wow, I love that your mom met a close friend at Costco! How wonderful to have such strong examples of mindfully connecting with strangers. I based this post very much on my own experience and context, so it’s great to hear there are so many others who don’t suffer from this same blindness. Thanks for sharing the inspiration. 🙂

  2. So true Rachel. And it’s amazing how hungry some people are to make any connection when we just let Jesus love be our guide. A compliment, an offer to cut in line, a smile at the shy child hiding behind momma’s leg while she tries to unload the groceries without spilling things or losing patience with the mass of children begging for a treat. (Oh, yeah, and my coffee always gets spilled, usually on a white shirt the first time I wear it).

    I love that you notice. That you mark each of these lives as irreplaceable. When I moved to Seattle from my town of 2000 people (into a building that housed that many), I would stare out my window towards the hills covered in houses, in lights, in cars and be amazed at all the souls. So many souls, living with heartache, with loss, with joy, with hope…

    Ah. A challenge. A perspective to open my heart. Thank you.

    • You know, it helps to have a friend to open you up to others. I know I think of you when I see a mom with several children in a busy store, traveling, etc. It inspires me to treat her as I would want to treat you. So there’s a certain snowball effect to all this, I’m thinking.

      I love the image of you looking out on a sea of lights and imagining the unique soul living in each one, along with its joys and pains. Since I live in a city, surrounded by people nearly all the time, it’s easy to become numb to this! Thanks for your thoughtfulness and for joining me on the challenge.

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