Charity as Social Catalyst

Ever done the experiment where you add purple grape juice to a jar of water, watch it change color dramatically, then add a bit of bleach and the entire thing clears again? I had an experience that cleared the air like that in a discount grocery store many years ago.

It was a fast-paced small store in which you saved money by loading your own groceries after the checker has scanned them and because they employed only two checkers they were required to move very fast. It was challenging to keep up with them and the lines usually grew long. Because of the bargain basement prices people often stocked up with entire cartloads (and sometimes more than one) of cases of goods. Olympic sport grocery shopping.

I stood in the middle of a line with perhaps 5 or 6 people in front of me and noticed a woman in the other line struggling to load cases from two carts. She had an infant in her cart who was crying plaintively and she was completely ignoring the child. It was a hot July afternoon, an uncomfortable hour chosen because it was least likely to be busy. The unairconditioned store was doing its best with its front doors open and people were shifting from foot to foot, grimacing sideways at her, drumming their fingers on their cart handles, sometimes letting out puffs of frustrated air and muttering.

Then a woman from the middle of the line pushed her cart to the side out of the way and went up to the mother, smiled at the toddler at her feet, and asked if there was anything she could do to help. The frazzled mother didn’t answer immediately, taken aback and just trying to move cases as fast as she could from her two carts onto the conveyor belt. I noticed that she moved awkwardly, as if it were painful or she were out of shape. The woman asked how old the baby was and was told that he was 3 weeks old. She replied with that small talk women make with one another over babies and soon the mother was comfortable with the woman picking up and soothing the baby while she haltingly unfolded her story.

The birth had been difficult and the baby was fresh out of the ICU. He had heart problems and would be going in for surgery the following week. She was not supposed to lift as she’d had a Caesarean so she had to do her best with him and the toddler. Her family had been unable to come support her at the birth, her husband was overseas military, and now her in-laws would be coming to visit so she was stocking up on food to make them comfortable. They had all been estranged for several years and she was nervous about the visit. They chatted about babies and children and the difficulties of extended family relationships and I watched as the woman grew straighter, talked less anxiously, smiled, and even began to seem hopeful.

What absolutely shocked me, however, was the change in the air in that little store. People listened intently, those at the ends of the lines straining forward to hear. The checkers quieted their movement of cans and jars until all that could be heard was the mother’s voice and the beeping of scans. Shoppers stopped drumming their fingers on their carts, sighing, and their faces softened. They apologized and heard, “Oh, no problem,” when their carts bumped each other in the tight lines. The checker, who had been hurried and dismissive with earlier customers, gave the mother her total with a smile and as he took her money and made change wished her success with the surgery. The woman offered to carry the baby out to the car and help load but the woman seemed stronger and happier and explained that she would be okay from this point and thanked her with soft but purposeful eyes.

As the woman turned back to retrieve her cart and move to the end of the line the shopper behind her triumphantly announced that her groceries were all loaded and ready to be paid for. The checker, who had been waiting for a minute, smiled and held out her hand for the card. We were all surrounded by an air of positive electricity, as if we had all done some secret good thing and were bursting with the revelation of it like children at the opening of a present for their mother. She was so surprised that she thanked everyone in the store They all beamed, grinning without embarrassment or apology for their own giddy, childlike joy.

I often think of that day and the incredibly transformative power of good karma, of charity gently applied and of the collateral benefits to an entire group. No good is ever wasted. No kindness is ever meaningless. Every goodness contributes to the whole in ways we can never quantify.

Do good.