Yesterday, I visited the grocery store, “all by myself”, as a proud five-year-old might say after knotting her first shoelaces together with a gap-toothed grin.
It was not a large grocery store, the kind with long bright aisles that seem to stretch away to infinity, but a small one, just down the road from where I now live, owned by two young men who, judging by the language they spoke to each other in, may be Arabic. Instead of rows of gleaming, brightly-coloured goods, towering shelves lit by dim fluorescent lighting are crammed into a small room, lines with mostly dried non-perishable goods, spices and herbs, instant noodles, beans and nuts, rice, canned food. There is a musty, spice-scented smell to the air that hits you when you walk in, which I have yet to decide if I like.
Nevertheless, no matter how tiny and small a place it was, it was still a visit, carried out by Yours Truly, an achievement I shall give myself a pat on the back for because:
a) I left the house and did not have more than one panic attack.
b) I walked into a public place, willingly placing myself in the company of strangers, without my anxiety cresting my self-consciousness to the point where only one thought registers in my mind, namely, FLEE.
c) Not only that, after scouring the shelves, which tends to disorientate me after a minute or so as my oh-so-sensitive noggin goes into overload from all the colours and variety, for what I wanted, I went and paid for it. By myself, just so we’re clear, handing over the package to be scanned, handing over my coins, whispering a “Thank You” mice hiding in the walls would have been hard-pressed to hear, and then I left and walked, by myself, back home.
One small step for most folk, one gigantic leap for this dreamer. Let the trumpets blare and the nightingales sing, the confetti fly and bells ring, for I, today, conquered my myriad sensitivities and managed to perform a task most people do so without batting an eyelash. Incidentally, in my nervousness, I did not check my change, and only found out later I was short-changed fifty cents, most likely by accident, which is irritating, but it’s unlikely I’ll return and ask for them. For one thing, it seems a “cheap” thing to do; and for another, the main reason, is that, after this accomplishment, due to which I am still feeling exhausted today, I probably won’t be able to leave the house for another century or so. I’ll be like the female equivalent of that Rip Van Winkle fellow, except my curse is to be blessed with an oversensitive nervous and neurological system—the very stuff of fairytales, I know.
That was the good part.
Yes, there was a bad part. Experience has informed me there usually is one. And it was so bad I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it, and could not, for the life of me, roll over and fall back to sleep, which is not unusual. Most anxiety sufferers tend to be overly-neurotic creatures, prone to rumination and obsessive thinking, and insomnia is often a byproduct of those wonderful traits. So instead, I got up and decided to write and tell you about it. What else are words for, except to share the stories we see, real and imagined?
Three other customers were shopping as well when I went, remarkable considering how early it was (I had deliberately gone early, so as to minimise the number of people on the streets and in the shop I would encounter as much as possible). While I was figuratively chewing my nails down to their cuticles in the check-out line, two customers were in front, while the third was still nosing around somewhere in the back of the store. Standing right at the counter was a short, yet slim man in a suit, without a suitcase, buying three bags of prawn crackers. Behind him, and in front of me, was another man, much older, middle-aged, grey-haired, slouched over in his baggy jacket.
I tend to, unfortunately, feel more anxious around men rather than women (make of that what you will; fertile ground for social commentary that does nothing but go around in circles, that is), so I was concentrating hard on reminding myself that were, in all likelihood, very nice, ordinary humans who just to wanted to purchase some food, like me—which they were. However, as the man-in-a-suit went to leave, he dropped one of his prawn-cracker chips. Down the red packet tumbled, crackling, tipping off the edge of the counter onto the floor, where it skidded to a stop between myself and the slouching man, who turned around. Both of us stared down at the chip packet, smack-bang between our feet.
An overwhelming urge came over me to pick it up and hand it to the man-in-the-suit, and yet, where due to my anxiety, or stage-fright, or my “dazed” feeling after scanning the shelves for so long, I didn’t, and neither did the slouching man. Instead, we simply both stared down at the chips as the man-in-the-suit doubled back over, bent down between us, picked it up, and left, the door swinging behind him, a new disheartened slump to his shoulders. I could sense what he was feeling: oddly upset, alone and abandoned, because two strangers did not lend a kind, helping hand when they were able to.
I wish I had picked it up. I could sense the loneliness wafting from him in a grey cloud, this lack of kindness the final decayed cherry on the rotting cake. I dearly wish I had. But I froze up. I didn’t, and the moment passed. And, for some reason I have yet to entirely entangle, I regret it most bitterly, and it has bothered me enough to take me out of bed at another ungodly hour to vent my thoughts and feelings on the matter.
This one incident is, in fact, related to a phenomenon I have noticed for some time now, on the few occasions I have left the house, which is that many people these days, in particular those walking on the streets in human streams past each other, seem depressed, and very often lonely, too, their heads bowed, or their eyes distant, trapped in the cage of their own worries, shopping and eating away their pain—it is almost as if, in cities, the human species has grown to such tremendous numbers, that our primitive brains cannot cope, and we are unable to reach out and form a connection with anyone anymore.
On the bus, at the grocery store, on the streets—all you see are silent people, ignoring each other, plugged into their phones, their own minds, their own pain, fatigue, despair. Granted, some may simply be withdrawn, or even anxious, like myself, but the majority are not. Instead, this is a consequence of people being conditioned, in modern society, to be indifferent rather than to care, to be selfish than kind. There are simply too many people to care about, too many struggling, too many squabbling over the same limited resources, the same bus seat, job, for things like love and kindness to have any elbow-room (and some people just don’t have those twin blessings in their heart in the first place).
Plus, it’s awfully difficult to be kind and make a connection or help people when you are miserable, and loathe your job, a common phenomenon in our modern-day capitalist society, because depression and unhappiness (you can take this from me) is the perfect breeding-ground for selfishness and self-absorption.
Faced by this barrage of lonely, lost and scared souls, I am lost myself; it constantly feels as though there is something very wrong with society, and the way it is run, only no-one else seems to notice, or those who do know they cannot change anything, and simply trudge on. The healer in me rises up, desiring to help, somehow, in someway. I feel like a wizard who has to nullify the zombie-status of endless ranks of the half-dead and shambling, and, put simply it’s impossible to do so. I don’t know how to eradicate capitalism and replace it with a more human-friendly economic model without humanity devolving into anarchy; or extricate people from occupations they dislike, seeing as I, myself, will one day most likely be, forced by financial necessity, to do the same, depending on how my mental health improves (and if it does not, well, that does not bear thinking about; there is no “cure” for Asperger’s, but many coping techniques which I am currently exploring), or how to make people feel happier and more connected with one another, short of cutting up society into hundreds and thousands of little self-sufficient communes (which, on some days, does not sound like too bad of an idea, frankly).
But, I mean, who knows? Perhaps loneliness and misery are an inalienable part of being human, present in the hearts of even those belonging to the most warm and friendly communities. Perhaps man, or woman, is destined to lie awake at night, no matter who is lying next to them, alone with the abyss. What I do know is that there are things we can do, can control, in our everyday lives, to inject a little happiness and kindness into the world. We can smile at people, radiate warmth, care, concern, lend a helping hand when none are available, and reach out to our fellow human beings and sufferers. At day’s end, all we have is each other; therefore, we must cherish other people as best as we can. Though I cannot perform these little acts of kindness myself due to my anxiety, spreading love does not have to be limited by psychological issues: with the internet, I can now lend a helping hand, through my words, to lots of people who are hurt, along suffering, lost or sad, and make a difference to their lives, no matter how small or insignificant.
To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world, as they say; and thus, I implore you to be kind, to make a difference, in your own way—even if it means doing something as simple and insignificant as picking up a chip packet someone’s dropped.