A couple of years ago, I was in Atlantic City for a work conference, and I was in one of those little stores they have on the boardwalks and in the casinos that are full of snacks, overpriced souvenirs and the sundries that traveling people sometimes forget to pack. The sales clerk seemed a little shy or disinterested, and judging from his accent, was from another country.
Since I was the only customer in the store, I was a little self-conscious about the way he was silently watching me as I shopped, and made the mistake of trying to make a little “small talk”. I don’t remember what was said for the most part, but the last part I will never forget.
I was trying to decide whether or not to buy a purse I saw there. Being a recovering impulsive shopper, I walked around the store some more to see if it was something I really, really wanted, or should I walk away without it. I explained to the clerk what I was doing, and laughed about how I had too many purses and shoes already. The clerk looked at me very soberly and said, “If you have more shoes than you need, give them to me. I will send them home to my country where many people have no shoes.”
I felt like I just took a punch to the stomach.
I didn’t realize I’d been bragging. I didn’t realize how much my privilege was showing, or how spoiled I must have seemed to this man from a country where people don’t have shoes. I always thought that I was a thoughtful person, one who gives to charity and tries to change the world for the better. But with that one statement, that clerk took me down to reality.
A very small part of me thought that the sick feeling I had immediately was due to being quietly dressed down by a store clerk, but that wasn’t it. He probably wasn’t supposed to speak to customers that way, but it’s a good thing he did. My empathy was asleep, and he woke me up.
Every once in a while, we can all use a kick in the butt that way. We forget how fortunate we are by the accident of birth to be born into such a wealthy country. We forget how we individually are fortunate to have our health, our homes, families, friends and enough of a sense of security to get a good night’s sleep in our own very comfortable beds. We are in the lucky minority, compared to the rest of the world. You are reading this because you have access to the internet, and probably using your own computer. Meanwhile, there are people without access to clean water to drink and no safe place to sleep tonight.
I don’t mean to get all Sally Struthers here, because I’m not accusing anyone of anything I have not been guilty of myself. I’d just forgotten how good I had it, and every now and again I still fall into moods or periods where I forget. It’s easier to complain about petty annoyances and jealousies than it is to effect change, isn’t it?
I hope that by writing about this, it will make you take a moment to reflect on the good things you have in your life, and perhaps even on the things you could do to make life a little easier on someone else. I’ll try to remember,too.