Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Shock and Awe

There I was minding my own business in line at the checkout when I was thrust into the web of a national debate. No, there were no cameras capturing what was happening, but rather a national debate happening right in front of me. It's the debate that we will continue to hear for many more months. 
The young lady who was checking out was obviously at her wits end. She was balanced between watching precariously each item scanned, while entertaining a cranky toddler who had a runny nose, and was rubbing his ear profusely. I am sure he was sick and being in the seat of the shopping cart was the last place he wanted to be. He was crying in pain, and his mom was trying as hard as she could to keep her sanity. I couldn't help but think of why the young lady was so intensely watching the register. She was in scrubs and appeared to be in some sort of medical program at our local community college. 
All of the sudden, I realized there was an older women and her husband who were obviously irritated by the crying of the toddler. They had been there the whole time, but I started noticing them because of their complete lack of understanding. They were covering their ears, making snide comments, and rolling their eyes. I thought how tough it must be for that mother right at that moment. I could tell she was obviously embarrassed and was trying to be everything in that moment. She just couldn't keep her sick baby from crying, and there was nothing that could change it. 
I noticed she was purchasing a lot of baby food and formula. Her basket looked a lot like mine. She had several things that were just normal items, things that anyone who was purchasing groceries for their family would buy. 
As the cashier rang up the last item and reported the total, the young lady pulled out her EBT card to purchase her items. The lady in front of me turned to her husband and very loudly said, "OH! Well, of course, she is using food stamps." The nastiness continued, "I hope she enjoys that food I bought for her."
The young lady obviously heard, and immediately her embarrassment turned to shame. She stopped making eye contact with the cashier, held her head down, grabbed her groceries and her cart with the toddler inside, and sheepishly scanted away. 
The shock must have been easily read on my face because the lady and her husband could not look at me again. I felt so sorry for the young lady, and I actually felt sorry for the couple in front of me. 
It occurred to me in that very moment, when did we become this demoralizing? When did we feel like it was our right to get angry and demean others? Why have we decided that we know what's best, and put ourselves in the driver's seat of people's lives? 
In my work, I am constantly bombarded with a false reality people have decided to believe. I have heard that the hungry are lazy, entitled, and completely devoid of our help. I have heard people say that food stamps are like feeding the animals -- they just come to expect it. I have heard people in Washington claim there is rampant fraud, and we should cut this program. I have heard all these horrible things. All of this ran through my head, all of it bitter and cold against the scene that played out in front of me. I'm pretty sure that young lady had no idea she was standing in the midst of a national debate. I'm quite sure all she really wanted was to feed her little one and herself. 
That's the problem when we decide what reality is: we miss that individual. Stats are great, but each time you talk about a stat, or cutting a program that will affect a certain percent of people, you lose the individual. You don't see the person who will have to face the consequences, which makes it much easier to do. It's easy to categorize people and make blanket statements; it's much harder to be part of the solution. 
I feel like we should be more understanding and less judgmental. We should remember what my grandmother used to always say, "There but by the grace of God go I."