When I go to the grocery store, I am focused. Really, really focused. If you wave at me from the across the aisle, I'm so busy counting totals and crossing off items on my list, everything blurs in front of me. It takes something intense to rouse my attention away from my meal planning.
One day, I maneuvered my cart up and down the aisles, making sure that I grabbed the peanut butter and didn't forget the good bread. As I stood at the back of the store, I heard screaming building towards me. Not like a hostage "they've got a gun!" shout, but a toddler's inconsolable, beyond reasoning, fever-pitched shrieks about wanting to go home. The wails wove through the aisles in almost the same pattern as me.
We passed in the dairy section, the mom completely ignoring the meltdown in front of her. OH!! I've been there. It takes a strong parent to not reward attention-seeking tantrums. In my head I thought, "Hang in there, mama. You're not alone." Those are exactly the words a kind soul whispered to me when my own toddler screwed up elementary school pickup by staging a snotty, howling protest, going completely limp in front of the student body and all the parents. He refused to budge and I couldn't lift him while I carried the baby. So we sat on the ground, everyone staring at us. "Hang in there, mama. You've got this. You're doing great." Yeah, I've been there. Many, many times. Probably at least every day for half of the school year.
I'm sorry to admit that I thought it, but didn't say it. I could have given her a thumbs up, a pat on the shoulder. I could have told her to hang in there. I don't know why I didn't. I justified my silence with not wanting to embarrass the mom. Looking back, I doubt that would have happened.
The yells and screams escalated through the snack aisle and past the soda. We reached the lines for the registers about the same time, the little guy still wailing, his head in his hands. The mom avoided all eye contact, dumped her groceries onto the conveyer belt, paid with her card, and bolted.
Can you blame her? What would you have done?
How would you have reacted?
The first to respond was a plump woman with greying hair standing next in line. She made a show of applauding to everyone around her. She put two fingers to her mouth, whistled, and shouted at the retreating cart, "Finally, some peace!" She tried to goad the store clerk into agreeing with her about how rotten that kid was.
Immediately, a younger woman in a spandex workout shirt shook her head and responded with, "Oh, come on! We were all little once. It's hard when you're tired and don't feel well!" She chuckled to herself and continued to load her own groceries.
I think I saw a worker run out to see if the mom needed help getting to her car.
I don't know the mom from the store. I never saw her again. I don't know the circumstances behind her son's cries. He might have suffered from a disability, something that left him unable to fully communicate his needs. He might have just woken up. His brother might have taken the last blue lollipop from the basket. Maybe the family had experienced a rough patch--financially or emotionally. That's just it. I don't know. None of us did.
The little guy was loud, for sure. The shopping experience was less pleasant, but not a big deal. It was, maybe 30 minutes start to finish. Nothing really. But I've thought about it often.
You know what stays with me? The responses.
4) Offering help
I remember the compassion offered to me on the playground, the support and encouragement from some random stranger. I don't need the glares, the stares, or the passive-aggressive suggestions to get out of the way. I'm just doing my best each day. I think most of us are doing the same. I don't need someone applauding my failures and shortcomings.
Moving forward, I want to be the person unafraid to speak up and say something encouraging. I can set down my own list. I want to be the one who stands up for another, without also being mean. If possible, I want to be the one who makes time to carry someone else's load, even if just for a few minutes.
I'm not just talking about grocery stores or unruly kids.
When you find yourself feeling frustrated, take a step back. Be the person three carts behind, watching the scene unfold. Pay attention to your body language, your impulses, and facial expressions. Remember what it was like for you to be in that position. You may not know the background. Be sure to allow some grace and give the benefit of the doubt.
But please, whatever you do, don't clap for someone else's misery. They remember that too.