“Fat people gotta eat!” she said as she poked around an end of aisle snack food display at the grocery store. She’d been talking half to herself, half to my three year old son who has the innocence and charm to engage many a stranger.
I was on a pointless search for an almond butter that didn’t cost a million dollars, but I smiled as she emphasized her statement by grabbing at her perfectly thin stomach. I assured her that she was more than fine in the weight department but not to be deterred, she good naturedly revealed her undershirt to reiterate her point.
She never stopped moving and I wondered if she really cared what anyone thought of her, stomach or otherwise, the way she confidently rattled on, side-stepping social expectations in a delightful child-like way. But as she poked her head around me to say hi to my son, she unexpectedly threw off my own sense of social balance: As though she literally couldn’t help herself, she invited my sugar-loving preschooler over to a veritable heaven of Hostess products and said, “Want a treat? You can only pick two. Which ones do you want?”
My son hid behind me at first as though even he was unsure of what to do in this situation. But confection wins out every time and before I really knew what had happened, he was throwing a box each of Twinkies and Ding Dongs into my cart.
Our new friend grinned and waved me along, “Just follow me and I’ll buy ’em when I check out.”
What had I gotten myself into? I didn’t have a strong social map for this situation (do they make books for this kind of thing?), and all my brain synapses were firing on awkward. How did this shopping trip turn into me playing follow-the-leader with a stranger who wanted to buy my kid infamously bad-for-you treats?
Still, though I may never know her whole story, I sensed that this woman might be someone who frequently found herself on the receiving end of help. How often did she feel really seen? How often did she feel the simple dignity of giving an impromptu gift to someone who couldn’t help their self?
So what that my three year old would have more Polysorbate 60 (apparently a Twinkie ingredient) than he knew what to do with. So what that we didn’t need them and I could have bought them myself.
We continued our unlikely procession, she occasionally turning behind to encourage my lagging son to keep going. At one point we split down different aisles but she told me she’d catch me up front. My son, far more aware of the situation than I’d given him credit for, said in his earnest way, “Need her! Red shirt!” He could identify down to the shirt color the woman who was funding his treats and he feared we’d lost her.
But as we rounded another aisle she shuffled past and kept waving us along as though we’d never left her sights. True to her word, she presented my son with his prize bag of goodies as she rung up her own things in the self check-out. I scanned my items too and thanked her, enjoying her ongoing irritated conversation with the finicky self-check out system. Before we left she told us where she lived and that we should stop by sometime and head to the lake. Her generous sincerity somehow rubbed like sandpaper against my own inhibitions and slowness to welcome people with such open-handed hospitality.
As we walked out the door she called loudly to my son again, “Love ya babe!” Maybe we’d call it taboo. Maybe we’d say it was a lack of social awareness. But from the time we encountered her, the woman was simply reacting in the present with a warmth and realness that most of us would be too embarrassed to show. (And maybe that’s more a tragedy than we realize.)
Though she didn’t hear him, my son, now tagging at my heels, met her free child-like emotion with his own: “I lud you too.”
And though admittedly I had to fight that place in my head that worried about my son freely throwing out “I love yous” to strangers, I started tearing up a bit at the exchange I’d just witnessed. My son didn’t see the strange, the uncomfortable, or the awkward. He didn’t care her gender, clothing choice, education level or race. Yes he was mostly fixated on the Twinkies, but I also believe he saw her as an equal. And isn’t that what I say I believe too? That we’re all equals?
It made me stop to ask myself how I think about each person I see. Do I really believe each person has equal dignity? Do I honestly believe that each person I encounter has a dignity that goes beyond what they’ve ACCOMPLISHED, what they can GIVE, or how they PRESENT themselves? Am I so busy trying to secure my own dignity and worth through helping others that I stop seeing each person as intrinsically valuable?
Do I forget that our human need for each other doesn’t depend on our culture’s definition of who qualifies as “needy” but on the fundamental premise that each of us has some incalculable imprint of our Creator to share with the world?
Silly though my story may be, I didn’t give that woman dignity by letting her buy my son Twinkies. Her dignity was her own beautiful birthright, Creator bestowed, not to be increased or diminished by a fellow creation. But in letting her buy my son something seemingly insignificant, I believe I acknowledged in my heart the dignity that was always hers. In watching her interact with my son I witnessed a piece of her that filled my own soul with more joy than a Twinkie has crème.
As I shared this story with my dad I lamented that my first reaction towards people is to see their social status, their worth according to culture, not their intrinsic dignity. How can I change that first reaction?
And he wisely suggested that perhaps we can’t control that first reaction, but that God is more concerned with our “second look” at people. Maybe we can’t help that first feeling of superiority (or inferiority even), that knee-jerk scan of who a person is and how valuable they are based on our first glance. But we give that reaction to God and let Him shape our second look so that we are able to lay down our man-made view of dignity and see people through the filter of His free love.
So may we pray to acknowledge and embrace the full dignity of others on the streets, in our homes, and occasionally even in the Twinkie aisle.
Have a story to share about your own encounter with the dignity in others? No story is small or insignificant…I hope you’ll share your moment and revelations with the rest of us. Or start a conversation on my facebook page at www.facebook.com/lesstobemore. Thanks for stopping by!