I went to a local large department store to buy some winter clothing as it was starting to get quite cold and holes had magically appeared in some of my woollen garments (moths!). I spent some time choosing things based on what I thought was value for money and quality. I was a bit annoyed that I had to replace some items that I knew were not cheap. I got to the till and greeted the assistant and as is my habit, I tried to engage with her, smiling and chatting. She did not respond to me at all, not even looking at me, which I found a bit irritating. I felt like saying something but decided just to complete the transaction and politely be on my way.
The contrast between the two of us was too much for me…
Before I got to the exit doors, I spotted a café inside the store and realised I was hungry and a cup of coffee would be nice. I sat down by a big window looking out on to the street outside with a hot toasted teacake and a really nice cup of coffee. A man suddenly appeared by the window like an apparition out of nowhere. He was very dishevelled with long, wild grey hair, dazed looking eyes and unsteady on his feet. He sat down beside me on the other side of the glass, put a carrier bag containing tin foil on the ground and lit a hand rolled cigarette. It was very cold and wet out there and he was quite motionless for a while, occasionally puffing on his cigarette. People passing by stared at him and it struck me how the scene probably looked from the outside. He had the appearance of someone homeless and maybe impoverished, but I didn’t know him so that was my own perception of him. There was I, right next to him on the other side of the glass in the warm and eating and drinking something nice. The contrast between the two of us was too much for me to feel comfortable with. I wonder though, if passers by would notice that.
I decided that when I was finished my drink I would approach him and ask if he needed anything and offer him something to eat and drink too. I knew part of my need to do this was to ease my own discomfort, but if it benefitted him then that was ok. Just then two other men appeared and approached him. They clearly knew each other and engaged in conversation and sharing cigarettes. I observed that these newcomers appeared quite ‘rough’ to me. They were slightly built with quite gaunt faces and although their clothes were dirty, their shoes looked quite trendy and expensive. My perception of the original man changed and I felt if I approached him now it might be dangerous.
I think this was wise thinking, but it was the contrast between them and I that caused me to feel most uncomfortable though, rather than who I thought they might be. To me this experience reflects the divisions in our society and the different levels of life we live.
I was just about to go when I thought, ‘hang on, surely the items I bought cost more than I had paid?’ I looked in my bag and sure enough one of the items costing £30 wasn’t on the receipt. The assistant had clearly not scanned it. I wondered if she had done this deliberately and had really been listening to my story about ‘holey’ jumpers, or if it was just an error. I thought for a moment, that’s a nice bonus to my shopping, I get a jumper for free, ‘why, thank you!’ I could just walk out the door and no-one would know. But then I thought, there’s just no way I could live with that. For the sake of a free jumper, it wouldn’t feel satisfying and I would know what I’d done, it was not something I was prepared to do. I went back to the till point and the store manager was there. I showed him what had happened and he was so grateful, he gave me a 30% discount. He couldn’t thank me enough. I got the impression he was very surprised and did not usually encounter this. I felt grateful to him too and quite pleased with myself.
Now I’m not saying here that I’m some kind of saint. The temptation was clearly there. Had my decision been affected by my experience with the man outside? Was this some kind of test? I’ve concluded it was a great experience to observe and put me in touch with my own thoughts, feelings and actions, to allow myself to be human, and to be aware of my judgements and perceptions. The whole thing was an experience or test of self-awareness and mindfulness.
I’m going to write more self-awareness and mindfulness in upcoming blogs. So look out for them.
To your success.