Every day, I go to work as a grocery store cashier at a family-owned business in a prosperous region of the more generally depressed Appalachian mountains. This work has transformed my life, not because it is the exciting, high-impact, high-power job so many of us dream about in our twenties and thirties, but because it brings me into direct contact with humanity.
I am sometimes astonished by the suffering, just beneath the surface, that permeates the air. I see it in the grocery store in a way I might not see it in other careers, because all humanity – the miserable and the joyful, the ill and the well, the rich and the poor – need to eat. Therefore, the grocery store is a gathering place where all social lines breakdown. We are united by the commonality of food.
I see a young man – eyes drooping, so thin I can see his spine poking against his teeshirt, dragging himself through the aisles as if he is dragging a tank behind him. I watch him through the aisles, I check him out at the register, and he is often rude, empty. Being a depressive myself, I know the marks of an inner Hell that is tearing him to shreds.
I watch people dying slowly and miserably of terminal illnesses that they cannot afford to address. Some are full of bile, their regret cast before them like a long shadow, while others are trying to soak up as much life as they can.
I remember the old woman who received a phone call while in my line to inform her that her grandson had just committed suicide. She wept, and I listened hard to her stories of her grandson. She thanked me, and went on her way.
I remember the man who wandered through my line, tears in his eyes. He looked at me as if he were starving for something I couldn’t give him, and he said, “My best friend just died of a heroin overdose. Please, please, value your friends, value every moment you have on this earth.” He wandered out the door, lost in his grief.
An old woman came through my line once, and her cart was full of frozen cakes. She met my eyes. “My daughter just killed herself,” she said. “These frozen cakes were her favorite. I will save them, I will keep them forever.”
I see meth addicts, skeletons of their former selves. I see alcoholics, the smell of whiskey heavy on their breath. I see the mentally ill, talking to people who aren’t there, and I see the homeless, wandering in from the street because we have air conditioning and cheap food. I see shreds of humanity abandoned and forgotten.
I see joy, too. I see the old woman who had finally, after years of saving money, finally got teeth. And, to top it all off, she got an aesthetist to remove all her facial hair. Now she flashes her brilliant smile at everyone she can, and she is radiant with joy. All she ever wanted was teeth, and now she has them.
In this setting, in which new suffering walks through our doors every day, mixed in with the mundane, the regular, the blithely happy, feeding the public is transformed. It’s no longer a chore, but a sacrament. When I hand people whatever nourishing food they’ve chosen off the shelves, I hear the words of Christ, “This is my body, broken for you.”
That everyday moment is transfigured into something sacred, for it is full of the recognition that this is another human soul, and that this human soul is capable of galaxies of silent suffering. That connection with suffering, and that offering up of nourishment – that is holy, that is sacred.
Every day, I am reminded that we all feel pain. We all suffer. We all yearn to be seen. And this realization fills me with a tenderness that words cannot express. I can’t put it into words, this seeing of humanity. I wish I could share this tenderness with everyone I can. I wish I could tell everyone who seems dubious of my work, “no, you don’t understand. Working in a grocery store is not a waste of time. It’s not a waste of my talents. If only you could see what I see.”