The Compassion Challenge
I’m standing in the checkout line of Dollar General with our garbage bags and a pack of pens. Jenn’s wandered off to look at something shiny (PROBABLY NAIL POLISH), and I’m reflecting on the Super! Awesome! past few hours…we’d had to run an errand, and that resulted in us sort-of-somewhat passing by one of my favorite wildlife preserves (sadly, it’s pretty far from us, so I don’t get to see it as often as I’d like), and even though it was cold and windy (and threatening rain), we’d still hiked it. The first hike there of the season! THIS MEANS THAT SPRING IS HERE! HUZZAH! We’d also just been thrifting, and I’d found a volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry I DID NOT HAVE, so I was all sorts of happy. I’m kind of daydreaming—not gonna lie—so I’m snapped out of my happy euphoria by a very gusty, very unhappy sigh from the checkout lady.
There’s a tiny old woman ahead of me—super stooped, wobbly, short, her head shaking as she cocks it at the cashier. The cashier sighs again, sorts through the coupons the old woman handed her. “You don’t have enough,” says the cashier, annunciating every word as if the old woman’s stupid, “to get the five dollars off.” She waves one of the coupons under the old lady’s nose. The coupon says “$5 off an order of $25 or more.”
The old woman blinks, stammers that she’s sorry. “I don’t have enough money if I can’t get the $5 off,” she says, and turns. “I’m just going to go get more toilet paper, okay?” She hobbles away as quickly as she can toward the TP aisle.
I’m the only one in line, but as she hobbles away, two twenty-something guys get in line behind me. “What’s the holdup?” one asks the checkout lady, who sighs again, rolls her eyes, says the “old lady’s holding up the line.”
A thirty-something guy gets behind the twenty-somethings. We wait less than a minute for the old lady to hobble back, barely able to hold the two packs of toilet paper she’s buying.
“Jesus fucking Christ, would you hurry the fuck up?” one of the twenty-somethings says behind me. That’s when it starts to fall apart.
“It’s all the money I have,” the old woman keeps repeating. “I’m sorry, it has to count.” The two men behind me are fidgety as the checkout woman scans the toilet paper. She sighs for an entire minute before rolling her eyes, telling the old woman loudly—as if she’s stupid (she can hear perfectly well): “YOU STILL. DON’T. HAVE. ENOUGH. FOR. THE. DISCOUNT.”
The two men behind me are angry. We’ve been waiting in line about a minute now. One minute, and they’re saying expletives and violent words. The thirty-something guy behind THEM says: “Just buy a candy bar! Christ! I’ll give you a buck for a candy bar!” This causes the twenty-somethings to laugh out loud, mutter more “Jesus fucking Christ’s” under their breath. The old woman has started shaking now—visibly and obviously upset as the checkout woman slams the toilet paper into a bag and shoves it into her hands. The checkout woman grabs a pack of gum—not asking the old woman if this is what she’d like to buy—scans it and gets it over the $25 mark.
“I’m so sorry,” says the old woman. “It’s all the money I have…” Over and over and over again, tears in her eyes.
The checkout woman shoves the rest of the bags into the old woman’s hands. The old woman charges the food and toilet paper and hobbles out of the store. The checkout woman starts to check me out while the old woman is leaving—the men behind me breaking out into laughter at how “goddamn stupid” she was. The twenty-somethings and the thirty-something did not know each other—they bonded (and quickly) over how much they could deride someone who had no money, who was doing the best she could, who cost them a moment of time.
I was so speechless during the encounter—it happened so fast, and I couldn’t believe they were so violently and intensely cruel in a heartbeat. Everyone involved. I’m no saint—I have patience, but there are definitely times in my life where I get frustrated. But this was a tiny old woman who had no money, and these men were buying beer and obviously had money, and there was so much privilege and degradation and unkindness that it struck me to my core.
For a single moment of “wasted” time, it was perfectly all right to tear someone they didn’t know apart.
So I said “fuck it.” I wanted to go after the old lady and ask if she needed help (once I got all of my feels together), but she was already gone. I felt terrible. I was too shocked in the moment to help (who expects something like that to happen?), and it was over too quickly.
But I’m not forgetting it.
I was so upset on the way home, trying to think about something I could do. Jenn and I talked about it, and I decided to share the story, because I DO want to do something.
But hey—maybe you do, too.
I’m asking you guys to do a favor. There’s so much shit in the world—senseless acts of anger and degradation and hate. Do something this week that’s kind. Compassionate. Actively seek to do a random act of kindness. Do it for no reason, no hope you’ll get anything back—pay it forward. And think about the old woman, if you can, while you’re doing it. I don’t know what her life is like, but she deserves compassion.
Honestly, I don’t know what the mens’ lives are like. Or the checkout woman’s. But they deserve compassion, too.
Each day this week, I’m going to try to do a random act of kindness. I hope you’ll join me for just one. If everyone who reads this did ONE NICE THING while thinking about that old woman, there would be a lot of really supremely wonderful acts going on.
“Sarah,” you might say. “Shit happens every day. What’s a few nice things going to do to change it?” A few kind actions aren’t going to change the fact that terrible things happen. But at the worst times in my life (and even some times that weren’t the worst, but where I really, really needed it), I was given a small act of kindness. It’s shaped me to who I am today. SMALL ACTS OF KINDNESS MAKE A DIFFERENCE. They do. And if done in the name of this old woman, who knows—maybe the energy can reach her, somehow.
I hope that when something like that happens again, I won’t be too shocked to help. Sometimes, I forget how shitty the world is. One tiny action of kindness would have changed that woman’s day. We don’t know how the little acts of kindness we’re going to do will affect things. I hope you’ll join me. <3