This afternoon I was in a south Salem Fred Meyer checkout lane. There was only one person ahead of me, so I decided to skip the self-checkout, which I usually prefer as the lines aren't as long.
When the person in front of me moved forward, I didn't immediately do the same with my grocery cart. I heard the man in back of me say something. Couldn't make it out exactly, but it sounded something like "you can move now."
Anyway, I ignored the comment, unloaded my groceries on the conveyor belt and soon was at the head of the line. As the female clerk rang up my items, I got out some coupons for certain items I was buying. I handed them to the woman after she had scanned all of my purchases.
Everything went smoothly until she said, "Oops. I pushed the wrong button. Got to ask for an override." She picked up a phone and dialed her manager. As we waited for him to show up, I told her that it'd be nice if she could punch in her own override. Why did a manager have to do it?
She said that her manager trusts her, but the corporate higher-ups don't. That led to a discussion between the clerk and me about how employees of a big business shouldn't be criticized for having to implement policies established by executives.
We had time to talk because even though the clerk could see her manager down at the self-checkout section, he wasn't moving in her direction. I suggested she wave her arms, which she did, but that didn't help because the manager was facing away from her.
Eventually she phoned him again and he indicated that he'd be doing the override soon.
At that exact moment, pretty much, I saw that the man in back of me in line, who had put all of his items on the conveyor belt, was picking them up and placing them back in his cart. I said to him, "We'll be done here in just a bit."
He angrily told me, "Thanks for holding up the line," as he continued to pick up his items. I replied, "Hey, this wasn't my fault, and it wasn't her fault either. It just was a glitch." The manager then appeared, held out his override tag or whatever it is for the clerk to scan, and said to me, "Sorry it took so long. I had something else to deal with."
So the irritated man in back of me, who looked to be somewhere around my age, in his 70s, put all of his stuff back in his cart and left the checkout line just as the clerk was finishing up my purchase. I said to her, "Bad timing on that guy's part. Now he's going to have to wait in another line."
Now, since I'm in a mindfulness frame of mind, having written a few days ago about my re-reading of Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are, I found this check-out line experience to be a great example of what goes wrong when mindfulness is forgotten.
Meaning, when we allow our negative thoughts and emotions to override the evidence of our senses. Believe me, I'm an expert on this, because frequently I've had feelings akin to the irritated man in the line behind me.
It's easy to jump to conclusions based not on objective reality, but on what we believe is happening. I doubt that the man understood that the reason for my delay in checking out was an innocent error by the clerk in pushing a button on her touch screen.
Maybe he wasn't listening closely to what she said to me and to her manager on the phone. Maybe he was hard of hearing. Or maybe he knew what the problem was and still became irritated. He might have been having a bad day and this was the experience that sent him into a major irritation.
Regardless, as noted in my previous post, there's a lot to like in Kabat-Zinn's observation:
Think of yourself as an eternal witness, as timeless. Just watch this moment, without trying to change it at all. What is happening? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear?
The man behind me was seeing the checkout line through the lens of his impatience and irritation. Again, I've been there and done the same thing, so I can't judge the man for this. He was simply reacting from his own subjective perspective.
For me, on the other hand, the delay in checking out as we waited for the manager wasn't bothersome at all. The clerk and I were talking about what was happening. We shared a common view that big corporations like Kroger, which owns Fred Meyer, can have absurd employee policies.
I knew that the clerk was doing her best. When the manager finally appeared, I had no doubt that he also was doing his best. This was just a minor problem caused by a simple mistake. When the clerk told me, "I pushed the wrong button," I said to her, "I do that all the time."
Hopefully I've learned something from this episode.
Maybe the next time I start to get irritated at someone, I'll pause and remind myself that whatever is happening, it's what is happening. Almost certainly no one is trying to make me irritated. I'm doing that to myself by expecting something to occur which is different from what is actually occurring.
That's why I'm attracted to mindfulness so much, which is defined by Kabat-Zinn as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally.
UPDATE: After writing this post, this morning I woke up irritated at a fairly minor health problem that bothers me at times. I was going to tell my wife how I felt. Then I realized that my irritation wasn't very different, and maybe not different at all, from the man in my checkout lane story getting upset at having to wait a while in line behind me while the clerk dealt with a problem.
The lesson for me is that it's a heck of a lot easier to observe when someone else is being unmindful and self-centered than when I am. But maybe I've learned something. By not complaining about my problem, which wouldn't have done anything to help the problem anyway, my wife had an open conversational window to talk about some things she was interested in. I ended up feeling better listening to her than I would have if I'd done my complaining.
Sure, sometimes it makes sense to let our negative feelings out. But sometimes it isn't.