Ten days ago, right after the initial public requests for social distancing in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic, I went to my grocery store. What struck me immediately was that people were frantic, disconnected, and rushing around. Everybody was grabbing for stuff without awareness of other people around them. They were cutting each other off in aisles, everyone for themselves. There was that sense of urgency, get what you need and get out as fast as you can and back to safety at home.
They seemed to be afraid as they desperately searched for cleaners, disinfectants, and hand sanitizer. I’ve never seen anything like it. The shelves were empty, and the carts were overflowing with megapackages of paper towels, toilet paper and bottled water.
The sense of urgency was contagious. I felt the urgency, even panic and started thinking, “there won’t be enough”. I found myself grabbing things I didn’t necessarily need.
Ten days later, on my second trip to the same store, I immediately sensed a difference in people’s emotional state. They were taking more care to allow space between each other and there was less franticness which allowed more eye contact and even an occasional verbal response, “Go ahead.” or “After you.”
I don’t think the people were any less afraid on my second trip, but this time their fear wasn’t stoked by empty shelves. The store management had created a sense of order by setting limits on items that were essential or perishable and I also noticed grocery store employees circulating, at a safe distance, inquiring if customers had questions or needed help finding items. There were also announcements on the store loudspeakers telling customers where to go to line up, at a safe distance, for the self-service registers or the teller registers. There was even a special line for seniors. Store personnel were circulating in the register area to facilitate a smooth flow and to help keep it orderly…again with smiles and patience.
I began to sense the genuine care they were expressing for all of us and I was deeply touched. I began to intentionally look directly at these employees, engaging their eyes and thanking them for their care and support during this difficult time. I also told them how important their time and services were to me. Without exception, they beamed back at me with an enthusiastic, “You’re very welcome!”
The change in the environment profoundly affected my emotional reaction. I felt calmer. I was able to take in more of what was going on around me and was able to move more slowly and thoughtfully. It was an external order that the store had supplied that helped reduce the fear and helped bring about a change from a sense there wouldn’t be enough to “We’ll take care of everybody.”
The structure the store provided and intelligence, care and planning that went into it, wasn’t just a business strategy. It wasn’t management just being financially astute or strategic. There was more of a sense of care for the community like the feeling of a good parent. “The kids are out of control. We love them but they need some structure here.” That was the strategic piece. That’s what made the difference, that clearly management and their employees had seen what happened and thought: “We’ve got to do a better job of managing the situation. This isn’t working and we want to be sure people get what they need. That’s our mission, to feed our community.”
The overall experience was very powerful for me. It allowed a shift in my perspective from so much fear to experiencing that sense of a shared humanity, that feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’. The store management and their employees reminded us how to be our better selves, our better angels so that we were able to really care about each other.
The power of this experience for me at this particular time was how it slowed the whole thing down so I could see how deeply dependent we all are on the people who work on the front lines in grocery stores, the trucks and companies that get food to the store, and the farmers that grow it. It was a moment of really seeing and appreciating the complexity of it all. Mutual care, concern and cooperation are a fundamental part of our human nature that we easily forget under the influence of fear. One could say these qualities are a source of our survival as a human species.
So, when I approached that clerk and looked him in the eyes and said, “Thank you so much for your service. I’m so grateful. I don’t know what we’d do without you.” We were seeing our essence. We were seeing how much we care for and value each other.
Well that’s love you know, embodied love, love in action.
To me, this time of social distancing is resonating in our collective human soul. We’re feeling out of control and facing the real uncertainty of life that we usually deny in all our busyness. As we individually practice connecting with and embracing our fear with kindness and compassion, there is a possibility for us to find a way to live more deeply connected with each other in the preciousness of this moment. To me, that is the opportunity in this moment in our shared history.
Especially when we’re feeling like we don’t have any alternatives, that’s when we need to pause, slow down, see what’s possible because our actions, large or small, do affect others, often in very profound ways.
I think what gives great meaning, purpose and great love to our individual work in meeting our own fears is that our effort is in the service of a much greater potential awakening. I’m reminded of something Thich Nhat Hahn wrote,
“When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
We can navigate this pandemic as long as we work together. There is enough for everyone. We just need to pause, take our time, consider those among us who need more care including the elderly, those out of work, or those on the front lines.
My wish is that we wouldn’t need a crisis like this to see each other’s hearts and to see what really matters, but today’s pandemic is a great opportunity and my prayer is we’ll rise to the occasion and “seize the moment”.