My husband and I have talked recently about the lack of compassion in our children. We watch emotional movies that I will feel choked up but when I look to my children – nothing. Most times they will laugh at my show of emotion. I’ve wondered how I can extract more empathy from them. Don’t get me wrong, my kids are not hard-hearted at all. They are aware of others and have always taken notice of another’s vulnerability. When they were younger, they would sit with the hearing impaired children at lunch or make friends with those that seemed to have difficulty fitting in, but with age I see more hardened reactions than when they were younger. More of a distance. Definitely less sympathetic attitudes as teens. I’ve prayed about how I could help direct them.
Recently, I was at the grocery store loading my $450.oo worth of groceries onto the belt. With four kids in the house it is not unusual to spend $300 at a pop on food, especially when 3 are growing teenage boys. But this particular day, my foraging included the tenderloin for Christmas Day dinner and plenty of snacks to keep the kiddos at home with full bellies.
I happen to be in line behind a young girl. She couldn’t have been more than 20- maybe 21. Her items were already riding the belt. I was busy in my own world – going through my holiday check list in my head, practically wringing my hands over all that I needed to accomplish, and knowing I never would. I wasn’t in a particular hurry that morning. Just concerned that I would forget something of importance. It was December 23rd, so I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to have to face the aisles of the store again tomorrow. But as my muddled brain attempted to organize itself – my attention was drawn forward.
She asked the cashier if she was permitted to use a coupon on something. The cashier told her no. It was then that I noticed her grocery items. There was nothing other than baby food. Small jars grouped together. Several boxes of rice and oatmeal cereals side by side. A few small containers of Gerber’s’ snacks. Each grouping had a piece of paper on top – they appeared to be checks of some sort. I wondered if they were government assistance of some type.
She didn’t carry a purse with her, only a large clear pouch with a zipper across the top. It was filled with numerous pieces of paper. Some were obviously coupons – others I am not sure. But it was a mound of paperwork squeezed into this container. She held it close to her as if everything she had depended upon it. I watched her several times unzip the pouch to rifle through the papers. She shuffled and reshuffled. She counted them onto the shelf, licking her finger as she checked each one carefully. At that point she asked the cashier another question.
“How much was that again?” “Was it $1.00?”
The cashier began to scroll back down the receipt, her eyes scanning for the price. The girl seemed to be excited. I could see that she was visibly ready to leave the check out. The cashier found the item and announced,
“No it wasn’t $1.00. It was $2.00.”
I could see the girl’s face fall and her excitement deflate. Clearly, this was not the answer she had hoped for. She spoke again.
“Oh. I was going to get another one if it was a $1.00, but I can’t do $2.00.”
I stood there frozen. I wanted to tell her that I would pay for another box for her. I wanted to tell her that I would pay for her entire order and anything else that she wanted to go back and get for her baby or for herself for that matter. But I didn’t.
Not once did she ever look back at me. Nor did she ever look at the items that were perched on that belt right behind hers waiting for me. She was only focused on her own business at hand. She was very serious – as was the cashier. It was almost tense. I think that is what probably kept me from speaking up. I wondered if she would be embarrassed or angered if I offered to help her. I didn’t want to offend her. I stood there silently.
My eyes wandered over my own items again. I was almost ashamed of those things that I had taken for granted. The tenderloin that has become tradition. The luxury off fancy paper Christmas napkins and plates for appetizers and desserts. The assortment of sodas and flavored waters. All of those things that I do because that is how I was raised to host a holiday dinner. Yet, she was truly just trying to feed her baby.
The words sat on the tip of my tongue. As she gathered her bags and started on her way my eyes met the cashier’s. We’ve known each other since my first born was a baby. She has watched me shop for years in that store. Each week we would chit chat about the kids and what was new. But for those first few moments we were in silence. It wasn’t awkward. It was as if we were both processing the situation, wondering what we could have done – wondering what we should have done – if anything at all.
Finally she began our usual banter. “How are the kids?” “How old are they now?” “Wow, it’s hard to believe it has been that long, isn’t it?”
When I asked her how her kids were doing – she answered quickly, “As of last week, I have an empty nest.”
Another moment where I froze. I finally managed to put the words together. “Empty nest?” I just couldn’t believe it.
She began telling me how both her son and daughter had graduated from college. One last December and one last spring. Neither had been successful in finding jobs. They had returned to live at home again after graduation. Her son with a degree in Math, had been working at Sherwin Williams paint store for the better part of a year, sending out resumes but never an offer. Her daughter had continued to work on her Masters after being unable to find a job. Even after receiving her Masters she had only been offered one job. So the week before Christmas, her daughter accepted the job and packed up herself and moved to Nashville. Her son had recently made the decision to join the Navy after being unable to find employment in his field. And with that – they were gone.
I wished her a Merry Christmas and I pushed my cart out into the parking lot. I felt like I had been hit by a truck. Complete mental exhaustion. I’ve thought about that young girl dozens of times over the past 9 days. I’ve kicked myself for not saying something…saying ANYthing. How I let my fear of her possibly rejecting me override her obvious needs. I should have taken the chance. I should have reached out. I still cannot believe that I didn’t. I‘ve thought about my check-out friend and how in the blink of an eye, her children were gone and she was adjusting.
I’ve thought about how everybody has a story. Everyone has something going on in their lives. Something painful – something joyful. But the only way to know is to talk to them. I think that this year I’ll try to talk to people more. I don’t mean the people I know – but the people that I don’t know. It’s easy to talk to the ones who seem happy and eager. But reach out to the people I encounter in parking lots or pharmacy lines. The ones who appear grumpy and exasperated. The people who seem burdened or irritated. Sometimes we can make a difference in someone’s life and not even realize it. If nothing else, I know I will make a difference in my own life by opening my heart to them.
My children are always annoyed when my husband and I make small talk with strangers. They say we are embarrassing. “Why do you have to talk to everyone?” My husband has always said, “You don’t have to be FRIENDS with them, but there is nothing wrong with being FRIENDLY.” They roll their eyes. But what if we took it one step further…
Perhaps this would be something that my children could also easily implement in their daily lives. Rather than visiting a homeless shelter for a day or two. Rather than me scheduling a day of working at a soup kitchen. Rather than organizing our charity or scheduling our compassion - rather than drawing a conclusion about someone from afar – they could speak to them in a friendly inviting way – offer to carry a bag of groceries, hold a door or just look a stranger in the eye and smile. Rather than rushing around in their own very busy world they might take the time to look around at the people standing right next to them. Perhaps I will challenge my children to consider giving the gift of conversation. Perhaps it could become their way of life. Perhaps someone else would reciprocate the thought. Perhaps.