I’m sure y’all remember this story that went viral a few months ago. It was a beautifully written letter that put a face on what The Average Person on Government Assistance looks like. It made people uncomfortably realize that SNAP users weren’t all black welfare moms driving Escalades and spending their food stamps on Kool Menthols and malt liquor—an image, by the way, that allows us to safely “otherize” the type of person who needs government assistance. It made us uncomfortably realize that There But for the Grace of God Go I, that her story could be any one of ours. It made us uncomfortably acknowledge that many of us are a paycheck or two away from that ourselves.
So talking about empathy again, what if, instead of demonizing the poor in our heads—this turning them into a bunch of lazy, greedy, ne’er-do-wells so that we can comfortably say to ourselves “well I’llnever end up like that because I have values”—what if we viewed them through an empathetic lens instead? What if we thought “God, that woman could be me. I’m only a few strokes of bad luck away from losing my house. I’ve just been lucky.” Does it soften you? Does it unclench that tight sphincter of yours a bit? Does it make you, even for a second, think that just maybe the whole world isn’t scamming you and you don’t have to be so angry all the time?
Anyway. That’s what that article did for me. I’ve thought about that letter a number of times since it made the rounds, and I vowed to step up and help someone in a similar situation should it ever present itself to me. Call it my own little experiment. I wanted to see how it made me feel, whether it would just make me feel like a smug liberal or whether it would give me empathy when having such a direct encounter with someone whose life was currently experiencing more misfortune than mine.
And lo and behold, it didn’t take too long for the opportunity to present itself. Yesterday, I was in the grocery store and saw a line with someone paying and jumped into it and started loading my groceries onto the conveyor belt. I got everything unloaded and looked up at the checker, who was leaning against the register, looking annoyed and picking at her nails. So I turned to see what was happening with the customer that had the cashier so bored, and I see the woman has all kinds of change laid out on the tiny counter in front of her, and she seems to be struggling with counting it.
And because I’m me and a knee-jerk bitch, my first thought was “Are you fucking kidding me? A change-counter? Why in the fuck do I always pick the wrong line and– Hey…wait a minute...”
I looked at the register and saw she owed a whopping $8.99, and I whipped out cash and handed it to the cashier while the old woman was still hunched over her change. When the cashier told her to put her money away, that I had gotten it, there was a moment of confusion until she realized the situation.
I sorta held my breath too. She looked like an ornery old thing, the type who would scream “I DON’T NEED YOUR HELP!!!!” at 900 decibels so the whole store would stare at us. But she blinked a couple of times and said “Oh my gosh! What a nice thing to do!” I told her there had been plenty of times I’d been rooting through my couch cushions to try to find change for food in my life and that I understood.
And I did understand. I have been there. And people helped me then, and I’m not sure I was particularly grateful because I was young and felt entitled. But she was grateful. We chatted for a few minutes, the three of us, about bills and how expensive shit was. She insisted on giving me the quarters she had in return. “At least take them for parking!” She exclaimed. And I did because when it comes to parking in the Bay Area, a trunkful of quarters isn’t too much to cart around.
And yeah, I get that there’s this whole group of people who argue that there’s no such thing as true altruism because everyone gets a rush from being the good guy. They argue that because you are getting a warm fuzzy from your good deed, it’s not completely unadulterated generosity.
And it DID feel good to do, but not for the reasons you might think. I think the main thing I felt was fucking gratitude because it forced me to think about a time where nine bucks was a lot of money to me, and now it’s not. Finding a crumpled up five in my jeans pocket used to be cause for celebration, but thankfully, that time in my life was short-lived, and for that I am truly grateful. And that gratitude led to empathy—it put less space between a stranger and me. It made me feel connected to other people on this planet, and it gave me perspective on just how fortunate I am. And the woman got some groceries. And the cashier was in a better mood after we all chatted, instead of being jaded and annoyed by another customer who couldn’t pay her bill. So fuck yeah, universe!
It’s been a bit of an exciting time for me these past few weeks. I finally feel, after years of practicing meditation and mindfulness and really struggling to bend my personality into an opposite direction than it’s been going for the past couple of decades, that shit is starting to CLICK. Being empathetic and other-focused is so counterintuitive to who I’ve been for so long, it was like training for a marathon. And now the training is paying off. Instead of going with my first instinct in the above situation, which would have been to sigh loudly, shift my weight, and roll my eyes toward the heavens so that the woman in front of me would be sure to know her antics are holding everyone (me) up, I took another second to figure out what was actually going on. The fact that I’m learning to control my initial impulses until I can fully gauge a situation is fucking huge for me.
I know, most of you learned that when you were nine. I’m just catching up to adulthood, apparently. But holy fuck y’all, that’s the whole goddamned point of meditation! To train your mind to be fully in the present so that you’re not bringing all your shit, like expectations or baggage, to a situation and you’re just fully dealing with what’s at hand.
Y’all know what this means? It means shit is finally starting to click and I’m closer to my goal of a more zen little life. It means if my old, crotchety, booze-addled brain can grasp it, y’all can too! It means if my selfish, diva ass can find humility by recognizing herself in others, normal people can as well!
It means that the struggle is worth it. I’mma keep fighting the good fight.