Gratitude for Groceries: Avoiding a mental breakdown on Aisle 8

The Superstore I frequent is always busy. Early morning, afternoon, and evening; it doesn’t matter what time you pick, you will endure 3 unavoidable challenges:

  1. A re-enactment of Mad Max as you locate a parking spot amid a sea of libertarian drivers capitalizing on the murky assessments of fault assigned by Manitoba Public Insurance to accidents in parking lots.
  2. A game of red-rover navigating tightly packed aisles filled with Type-A personalities duel-wielding shopping carts.
  3. A lengthy wait at the checkout compounded by a coupon-cutter at the front applying a level of scrutiny to her receipt typically reserved for border security.

Recently, Superstore tried to address one of these challenges with a guarantee that all checkout lanes will be opened at all times. This is an admirable step forward as it not only address challenge #3, but also provides more employment opportunities and hours for Superstore staff*.

Superstore is capitalizing on the new checkouts, stationing a greeter at the door to hand out cupcakes during the Thanksgiving weekend and emphasize the glories of the new initiative.

Given my massive sweet tooth and susceptibility to distraction by bright colours, the orange and black Halloween cupcakes attracted me like a moth to a flame. The greeter cheerfully extolled the benefits of having all checkout lanes staffed as I simultaneously turned off my podcast and consumed a cupcake without dropping my phone or wearing said cupcake…a feat that borders on a small miracle for yours truly.

Her discussion inevitably trailed off as the next shopper came through the door, but it made me reflect on how agitated people get while waiting in checkout lines. My own experiences as an employee at Sobeys for more than 2 years attest that people embody all the stages of grief as they wait in the checkout line.

I have seen shoppers pace uncomfortably, glare at fellow shoppers, swear at staff and children and even throw fruit at cashiers. Clearly, being pushed to such emotional extremes while purchasing groceries must be awful and I sincerely hope that their lives improve.

However, I also find the emotional hardship to be a bit silly. At the end of the day, we are just buying groceries and all of the negative emotions that froth to the surface from the experience seem…misplaced.

The whole experience of grocery shopping is a display of our opulent standard of living. Being able to buy groceries for a fraction of their historical price and from one convenient location is a luxury, plain and simple. To experience intense negative emotions and express a misanthropic demeanor suggests a misalignment of values.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, grocery shopping is not without its stresses. A child screaming in my ear or a catastrophically poor driver laying into his or her horn will take an emotional toll on anyone. But here is a personal strategy for keeping a level head:

Podcasts

For anyone that has access to an audio device (research shows smartphone ownership alone is at 68%), load up a few audio episodes about something important in the world, and listen to it.

A few weeks back, I found myself waiting for twenty minutes in a checkout line prior to the new policy and found myself listening to a CBC report on Syria. Listening to a gut-wrenching reports on the refugee crises, it became very hard to get upset over the challenges of the grocery store. It also instilled a sense of gratitude for what I have. This gratitude continued long after the podcast ended, I cleared the checkout aisle, and endured the Thunderdome experience of leaving the parking lot amidst a sea of shoppers and lead-foot drivers. I have so much to be thankful for and the fact that grocery stores represent a stress-point in our lives is a reminder of how well-off we are.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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*I am not familiar with Superstore’s staffing practices and am assuming the most altruistic of purposes.

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Experiments in Kindness

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When it comes to improving the world, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the problems we are bombarded with by daily news and social media. Charitable organizations, while noble in their intent, threaten to overwhelm potential supporters by clamoring for their attention, casting the average Canadian (myself included) adrift in a sea of problem vying for their attention.

In short, performing charitable acts can be confusing, overwhelming, and depressing experience. I believe that in the world I want to live, this view of charity needs to change.

I dream of a world where charitable acts can be engaging.

I dream of a world where charitable acts can be enjoyable

Most of all, I dream of a world where charitable acts can be accessible.

For these reasons, I experiment periodically with various forms of charitable acts, simple efforts to make charity more accessible and hopefully engage others to help me make a difference in the world. Some of the experiments work and are worth repeating; others fail and are shelved…sometimes forever.

My goal has been to avoid over-complicating the issue charity. I am an ends justify the means kind of person and while I can argue theory day and night (I do work for a university), I feel that confusing and overwhelming those wishing to perform charitable acts is the last thing we should do.

To reiterate, charitable acts do not require elaborate philosophical debate or a deeply-honed skill set. They require a kind heart and desire to assist fellow members of your species and/or the planet we live on, period!

Of my previous experiments in kindness, a highlight included requesting for my birthday that others perform an act of kindness (I use acts of kindness and charity synonymously) and then come tell me about it. The experiment went marvelously and resulted in a day-long series of positive acts being sent via social media, email, text, and in-person. The event was so successful that I made it an annual event!

Another included creating a day of kindness, where I offered to perform favours for anyone who asked for a 24 hour period. It did not matter if they were a close friend or I just met them, if they made a request I would deliver, pending a few moral, legal, and financial constraints.

My most recent project is the Countdown to Easter Charity Challenge. The goal is to post at least one act of kindness a day for 30 days. The goal is simple; do something nice and then tell others about it. It makes others feel good. It makes you feel good. Most importantly, it doesn’t overwhelm the average giver, who just wants to make the world a better place to live in.

Once people are accustomed to charitable acts, they can connect with particular charities cater to their unique values and interests. The point is that we should not confuse charitable acts with becoming a supporter of specific charities. A charitable act is simply volunteering assistance or help to those in need.

Avoid becoming bogged down in semantics and dream with me of a world where acts of charity are an enjoyable daily act, not an obligation to be pursued at some point later in life.

What a world that would be!

Giving Until It Hurts

It’s 7:00 A.M. and I struggle to shake the sleep from my body. My eyes are a bleary red not unlike those of the Terminator and the bags under them give the impression of mascara. The symptoms are of my own doing, I had a commitment that kept me up until 2:30 A.M and another that required I assist a soup kitchen at 8:00 A.M. The result was less than four hours of sleep. My body was being less than cooperative, manifesting the aforementioned symptoms in an effort to push me back to the warm embrace of my bed.

Something overrides the desire for comfort however and I push myself into my car (after downing enough coffee to make the world seem like it has entered bullet-time) and start my day’s commitments. The commitments I subscribe to are of my own doing; I choose on occasion to overbook my body and pay the price for it; sometimes through physical symptoms and sometimes through a breakdown in communication as my mind slows from sleep deprivation. For prime examples of my incoherent blather be sure to check out articles published on this blog, particularly those posted after midnight.

So why do I do it? Why do I (and many other generous volunteers) place ourselves in discomfort in the service of others? Beyond the obvious response of building a better world through volunteering our time, I personally feel that adding discomfort helps to fortify the mind against discomfort.

We have a natural tendency to avoid discomfort. This makes sense as keeping my hand on a hot element only succeeds in hurting myself, but reduces the amount I can do for myself or others. I have yet to hear a compelling argument for a burnt hand leading to increased productivity and in this context, the adaptation to avoid situations that produce discomfort.

The trouble is that from my own experiences, my mind has difficulty differentiating between tasks that threaten discomfort without reward (putting your hand on a hot element) v.s tasks that provide tangible rewards with a cost (e.g. volunteering at a soup kitchen and feeling some groggy effects throughout the day…and maybe cutting a few days off my lifespan). There is value in disciplining the mind to override the urge to pursue comfort and endure a bit of pain to accomplish tasks that matter. That doesn’t mean you have to be a sadist about pushing yourself to the limit, it just means that occasionally you should be prepared to accept the trade of mental malaise for accomplishing a task that you value.

While at the soup kitchen today, a fellow volunteer with an aged and tired face weighed down with the artificial mascara of sleep deprivation mentioned that she had received a severe blister from all the food preparation she did on her last shift. I stared back at her with my bleary, mascara-laden eyes and a crooked smile betraying a man whose mental presence was outsourced somewhere on Jupiter and replied “sometimes you have to give until it hurts”. We both laughed at my incoherent blather, as judging by tiredness in her eyes, we were on the same page mentally.