The Power We Have

(2.5 min read)

Our local Safeway lines are the worst. Doesn’t matter how busy the store is, you will always have to wait.

My daughter and I were playing that game where you guess which line will go more quickly. She stood in one and I stood in the other. She started winning. The checker in front of me had a pile of produce to go through. Produce takes forever, so I slipped into line with her.

“Just great,” a man behind us said, barely audible but with an emphatic arm-cross and an eye-roll.

I know that energy. It’s the kind that can escalate into a fight real quick, the kind of energy that righteousness and ego feed off of. It’s an incubator for all the bad things, setting ugliness on a conveyor belt. It will just keep going unless you actively stop it.

Although he barely spoke, he wanted us to see him. He was smaller than me, older than me. He had just about the same amount of groceries as me. Tons of salad dressing strangely enough.

“You seem like you’d like to go in front of us,” I said, stepping back. My daughter followed my lead, choosing to look at the tabloids to avoid the awkwardness her dad just created.

“I really don’t care,” he said, clearly caring A LOT.

Of course, we had the attention of the rest of the line in front and behind us and the neighboring lines flanking us as well. The onlookers: they can escalate things too.

I smiled. I tried to loosen my posture. I took another step back.

“Go ahead,” I gestured.

I could see he was thinking about it but he was still too committed to his first thing to allow our interaction to shift.

I had some shifting to do too. I had the upper hand – my height, my youth, my dad status, my position in line, even my smile was working against us.

But most importantly, I wasn’t fully committed yet. I was still righteous. I had to get fully committed to beating the beast. Eventually, I came across the right thing to say, the thing that would allow him to see that the beast was beatable and that I wasn’t feeding it anymore:

“I can see how you’d be frustrated about what just happened. You should go first.”

I meant it. It was a like turning a key in a lock. For me and for him. He moved forward.

After about 10 seconds, it happened.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve just had a really bad day.”

And we were free.

“I thought that might be the case,” I said with a big smile. “I hope things are starting to look up.”

“Well, I’m off work,” he said, searching for something universal for us to gather around.

I jumped on board.

“I hear that,” I said. “That’s why I’m making guacamole.”

The checker moved the man’s bottles of salad dressing forward, my daughter stopped pretending to read tabloids, the onlookers lost interest, and we shared the kind of banter that two strangers who just got off work tend to have in a checkout line.

Maybe it was even a little bit better than that.