I try to remind myself all the time that I never know what’s going on with someone down where the spirit meets the bone. Admittedly, I’m much more able to keep that thought front of mind when I’m not in the car, (because the streets are fair game, and you’re all jerks who don’t use turn signals) but generally, I really try. I don’t know why that woman treated me the way she did in the grocery store, or the extent of the pressures my client(s) might be under that sometimes makes them act out in hurtful ways. I can try, but I’ll never know. That’s my practice of empathy: remembering that I don’t know and trying to act in a way that illustrates that.
I had a wonderful opportunity today to do just that. And, on my penultimate shift as a retail worker! There was this kid. I mean, THIS KID! She wanted apple juice like nobody has ever wanted apple juice in their life and screamed and fussed and raised holy hell in the store, when her mom was trying to get her holiday shopping finished. It was awesome to behold, in the same way that experiencing an earthquake is awesome. I’m talking dictionary definition, “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration or FEAR“. I started off 100% annoyed at the kid and at the mom for not doing a better job of corralling that little monster. So was almost everyone else in the store. If eye-rolling made a noise, all you would have heard were the clack-a-clack-clackings of a store-full of eyeballs rolling back into their respective heads. I have to say that I was hoping she’d end up at someone else’s register. But, she got me. Or, I got her.
And as much as I wanted to reach out to the kid and give her some little thingy from behind the register to try to quiet her, I didn’t do it. Because it occurred to me that I had no idea what was going on down where the spirit meets the bone in that little girl. She could be on the spectrum, she could have a behavioral issue, who knows? Also, I didn’t want to put more focus on the situation, because the mom was done. But in the way the mom was treating her, it was clear that this had happened before. I chose, instead, to just be present for the mom. We had a 3-minute interaction where I made no mention of her child, and just asked her about her, her shopping, her plans for the holiday, etc. It was nice.
The person who came to my register next was — and I could see it on her face — ready to commiserate with me about that horrible child. She started in, but I didn’t play along and didn’t let her finish. I only said to her that I try to take each person as they come, and that I have no idea about the backstory of either of their lives, so it’s just easier to be kind. She was like, “I’ll take my book and be gone. Good day.” (Not really, but that’s what it felt like.)
The woman next in line at my register heard that interaction, and when I was ringing her up, she was tearing up. I thought, “Oh, no. I can do anything, but tears. Tears, nope, no idea what to do. So uncomfortable right now.” So, I ignored the tears until she spoke up and said that she’d heard what I said to the previous customer and that it touched her, because she has a son with severe autism. She didn’t bring him with her to shop because she was worried about what might happen — not to him, but to her, as the rest of the store clucked their tongues and gave her unsolicited advice about what she should be doing when he acts out.
My answer to her was that they don’t know your life. I said, “Are you ever having any of them over to dinner? Would you WANT to break bread with them? I bet there’s always going to be somebody — and maybe just one person in the situation — rooting for you and your son.” And then she made me hug her (yuck!) and I started tearing up (double-yuck).
There is no moral of the story here. Just a part of my day that made sense of the rest of it, and I wanted to share.