Advent Day 2
Here is a story for the first Sunday of Advent that could not have happened on a Sunday, because it happened at a time when the shops did not open on Sunday (and usually closed on Wednesday afternoons, too).
I was standing behind an elderly lady in a supermarket queue. She had a basket of items which travelled down the conveyor and were stacked carefully in her trolley. When the cashier gave her the total, she didn’t have enough money. She had to unpack her trolley, spread out her shopping, and decide which items to put back. Finally, a vacuum pack of gnocchi was put to one side, the remainder paid for, and my whatever it was rung up. But the gnocchi was sitting there, next to the till, waiting to go back on the shelf, and I couldn’t bear it. Dizzy and scared, I bought it, ran after the lady, gave it to her and ran away. She had a tartan shopping trolley and startled hair.
I have no idea who she was. I was thirteen at the time. I don’t remember feeling a warm glow or a sense of having done good; I do remember panicking about the money (these were lean times, although the money was my own) and about the fact I knew nothing whatsoever about this lady. Maybe there was a medical reason why she couldn’t eat gnocchi, but she loved gnocchi and had put some in her basket in a moment of weakness that she immediately regretted, and I’d ruined her by giving it back to her. Maybe she was accountable to someone else for the money she spent, and they wouldn’t believe that a stranger had given her the gnocchi and would be angry with her. Maybe my gesture had not been born of kindness, but interference. Had I acted responsibly? What trembling house of cards had I toppled with my action? There was no joy in the act, only a desperate fear of unseen consequences.
I am much older now – my eldest child is the age I was then, and it hurts to look back. But what I see in the heart of that little girl – for thirteen is still little, no matter what my newly minted teenager might tell you – is a deep-seated fear of rocking the boat. A terror that the wrong word, however innocently uttered, the wrong gesture, however kindly meant, might have untold repercussions. It took me years – decades – to understand that the fault was with the unstable house, not with the impulse to care for another human being.
To go with the instinct to care is empowering. God, for me, is shorthand for the importance of kindness. It’s not simply putting someone else first; it’s rebooting your assumptions, so that when someone cuts you up in traffic, your first thought is that maybe they’ve just had a call from school that their child is ill, not that they’re an evil git who’s out to get you. Where kindness is the bedrock, acts of kindness become easier. I cannot control whether the homeless person I give money to spends that money on a hot meal or drugs, any more than I can force my friend to read a book I’ve given them. And I’m not quite there yet, but it’s all tied up with free will and empowerment, and about including ourselves in the list of people we’re kind to, and about choosing the rock upon which to build our house.
There are many universes, and even now, I cannot help but stare terrified into their myriad possibilities. But for now, and until the black tides turn once more, the lady sits with her gnocchi and enjoys a small moment of respite from whatever pressure made her put it back.