I felt the words rather than heard them. Still, I resisted.
I was standing in line at the grocery store while the cashier was waving my WIC check around yelling across the store to a manager on duty asking if she could sign it. I know this is the store’s policy and yet I come here because it is close to my house and sometimes I just need a quick(ish) trip to the store.
But, frankly, I’m embarrassed every time I load my milk, bread, cereal, juice, eggs and peanut butter onto the belt, knowing that whether I like it or not, I’ll be causing a pileup behind me. (The good thing about grocery checkout lanes is that they’re designed so you don’t have to look at the people behind you. You don’t have to see their impatience or looks of disgust. Instead, you can imagine them and feel your face getting hot because you are standing in the way of someone else’s quick trip to the store.)
I try to be invisible on these days. To do everything right. To keep the children quiet. To bag up my groceries quickly and make as little conversation as possible.
But this day, the store was busy, and my cashier was flustered and while she was gone to find the person who could verify that she’d processed my order correctly, I stood at the end of the lane facing the people behind me. I wanted to keep looking at the floor, studying my toes, or search the lanes for my cashier, hoping she’d come back quickly.
Instead, I felt the urge to look up.
To hold up my head instead of hide.
In half a decade of WIC participation, I have never felt unashamed of my plight. I have always thought that people are assuming things about me and my family. That we have no jobs. That I have no husband. That I’m somehow abusing the system meant to help people like us.
But I’m tired of hiding my head. Of feeling ashamed. Less than.
So, I did it. I looked up.
A few years ago, Phil and I attended a one-day marriage conference put on by the seminary he was attending. Phil had helped organize the event, which was funny to me at the time because our marriage was still in recovery from massive hurt. But a lot of good came from that day, including our connection with a counselor who helped us get to a point of healing I didn’t think was possible.
But one other thing stands out to me from that day: a story one of the presenters told about a scene she and her daughter witnessed at a local pool. A man was verbally abusing his girlfriend. Like most people, her daughter wanted to look away. I would have, too. Scenes like that embarrass me. So do ones where kids are throwing fits. If it was me, I’d want to hide. But this woman told her daughter to look. Look. Don’t stare, but look. She wanted her to see what it looked like for a man to abuse a woman. It was an educating act. So that her daughter would remember that moment and be able to guard against it in the future.
Look. Don’t stare. See.
I find myself looking at instead of away from more often these days.
Kids throwing fits in the grocery store — sometimes I ignore the scene but other times I try to catch the mom’s eye so she knows I see. On really brave days, I say something like “keep up the good work. We’ve all been there. You’re doing fine.”
Even if they don’t believe me, they will know they are not alone. That there is no shame or embarrassment.
It is an act of love toward myself, a reminder when I’m in the same situation that even if no one else says a word, I am seen and known and loved, right in the middle of the mess.
The most embarrassing, shameful moments of our lives–the ones where we want to hide or disappear–are often the very ones that bring us closer to the heart of God.
If I had to pick a favorite story in the Bible, it would probably be the one in John 8. You know the one, right? A woman is caught in the act of adultery and a bunch of religious leaders bring her to Jesus, hoping he’ll condemn her to a death by stoning. They were testing him and she was the bait.
I can’t get over this story. Jesus, the only one who could condemn, the only one left standing after everyone else leaves and drops their stones because they are not without sin, forgives her. He sees her in her sin and he sets her free. He is not embarrassed or ashamed, nor does he cause her further embarrassment or shame. He deals tenderly with her. I love him for this (and so much more).
It’s a peculiar passage, though, because while the religious leaders are awaiting his answer, Jesus is writing in the dust with his finger. It’s not recorded what he wrote. There are tons of theories. Because we aren’t told, it’s fun to imagine what it could have been. Some say it was a list of the accusers’ sins. Possible.
But what if it was a message to the woman? She probably wasn’t looking anyone in the eye. I doubt she had an air of pride or haughtiness. Sometimes she’s portrayed as groveling on her face in the middle of the crowd. Whether she stood or was in a heap, it’s not hard to imagine that her eyes were focused on the ground. Jesus stooped to write in the dust.
Maybe he was telling her to “look up.”
I’m not good with eye contact, even though I have a degree in communication. Eye contact, or lack of it, is an important nonverbal cue, but my own insecurities haven’t let me master it yet. If I look you in the eye, count yourself among my most trustworthy friends.
So this urge to “look up” at the grocery store was not something I thought up on my own. I was ready to slink out of the store as fast as possible. But I stood with my head up for what seemed like an hour, although it was maybe less than a minute. I looked at the people behind me in line. And none of them were looking at me.
Maybe they were embarrassed for me. Maybe they didn’t want to see. Maybe they wanted to pretend this wasn’t a reality. Maybe they just don’t like to look people in the eye, either.
I’m sure they saw my circumstances. We were hard to miss. WIC checks are not subtle even when the cashier doesn’t have to shout across the store about them.
It’s easy to do: see circumstances instead of people. To pass by without thinking or seeing or caring.
Sadly, I do it all the time.
Because I don’t want to make someone uncomfortable, as if I could do that. I still believe it’s impolite to stare, but it’s another thing altogether to notice.
I want you to see me, not my circumstances. To look me in the eye and know that a real life, living, breathing person is in front of you in line. That even if you don’t agree with my circumstances (whatever that means), you see me as a fellow human being. There is no shame in acknowledging our fellow man wherever they may be.
When we pretend not to see, when we choose to ignore, that’s where the trouble starts. That’s when we care less about those people we don’t really know. That’s when we decide to make choices that benefit only us and no one else. That’s when we start ourselves down a path that leads to destruction. Of self. Of others. Of humanity. And earth.
It’s a simple thing, really, to look up. To look around. Okay, not so simple, I know. Because once you’ve seen, you can’t unsee. At least not without guilt.
It doesn’t solve anything, I know. But if it softens your heart or changes your perspective, even slightly, then maybe it’s worthwhile.
Whether you’re among those who look away because you don’t want to see or those who look down because you’re ashamed (and aren’t we all a bit of both?), I urge you to try it. Look up. Just once this week. When you find yourself tempted to look away, turn toward whatever you’re avoiding and see. When all you can see is the floor, force yourself to look up and around.
It’s hard. I’m with you on this one, in need of the reminder as much as anyone.
Let me know how it goes?