Life lessons at the checkout counter

"Humans are good. All of us."

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It took a second to realize I hadn’t heard him correctly. Really looking at him for the first time, I noticed he looked sad and tired. So there was no way his answer to my cashier small talk of “How are you?” had been “Fine.” “I’m so sorry — I don’t think I heard you correctly. How are you doing?” He replied, “My wife kicked me out last night, and I’m worried for my kids.” It was Nov. 22, around 7:15 a.m., and I was on my 14th shift as a cashier at Walmart.

The early-morning crowd is always a little different, I was learning — a hard-working group of nurses coming off the night shift, teachers on the way to school, cleaning crews picking up supplies, and sometimes someone having a really hard time. In fact, often someone having a really hard time.

Half of the United States goes through a Walmart on a weekly basis, about three-quarters of the nation goes through each month, and the United States is filled with a lot of people who are having a hard time, so that makes sense. But most of the stories I hear in my Walmart life are beautiful ones, even when they are about hard, hard things. There is a strength and resilience that resonates loudest.

Shift #54. “Is that great body cream?” I had to ask — she was buying six lotions. “It’s for my son — he has serious health challenges, and it’s the only one that works.” Then there were 10 rolls of Mentos. “Is Mentos his favorite candy?” No, she explained, they were for her mother, struggling with Alzheimer’s, and for the nurses who help to take care of her. “Always get extra for the nurses,” she said.

We talked about how hard it is to be part of the sandwich generation — caring for an aging parent and children at the same time. Being a caregiver of any kind comes with twice the risk of depression, twice the risk of coming down with a clinical condition, and it can even shorten your life span. And for her it would be even harder, since her son was struggling with serious health challenges. I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “I hope you’re doing OK. I hope you’re finding time to take care of you.” She put her hand right back on top of mine, gave me the most beautiful smile, and replied, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Then she walked out of the store.

That’s an example of what I see every day. For a moment I just stood there, reflecting on our conversation, and her spirit. Then I wanted to run out the door after her, yelling, “Wait! I think sometimes God does! How do we make sure you’re OK too?”

The reality of the United States today is that life can be hard. Financial stress, workplace stress, relationship stress, caregiver stress. Twenty-five years of working in health care technology has left me with the deep-rooted belief that we have to expand the definition of health to include life, because when life goes wrong, health goes wrong. That’s a clinically proven fact.

But eight months on the job at Walmart has driven home something else: Humans are good. All of us. And all of us are working hard — at whatever it is we’re doing. We are doing our best. And we are far more similar than different. The people who come through my checkout line are extraordinary, and my co-workers are kind, hard-working, generous, and often bring an inclusive sense of humor that just makes the day better.

If you took my Walmart life and superimposed it onto my life as a technology entrepreneur, there’d be far more similarities than differences. There’s the person you need to be friends with in order to make anything happen; there’s the bully; there’s the person who is sometimes in a great mood and makes your day amazing, but who can then turn and be in a snit and reduce you to a pile of self-loathing. There are the natural-born leaders and superproductive team members, and then there are those who are not so much.

I felt as nervous on my first day as a cashier as I did on day one with my last startup. And I feel as respectful — and therefore often afraid — of my boss at Walmart as I did of my board in my technology life. Doing both jobs made it impossible to live in any one bubble, and the reality of that shared perspective was grounding. If there were some way for each of us to walk even a few steps in someone else’s shoes, we might be walking away with a similar new starting point — an appreciation for how much we are alike, instead of a digging-in-of-the-heels over the differences. Changing our reality, and therefore the world, is a whole lot easier when we start from that place.

“What if you tried writing a letter to your wife?” I asked my early-morning customer, the gentleman with the sad eyes. “Sometimes it’s easier to hear something when you’re not thinking about how to respond.”

His eyes brightened a little. “A letter,” he said. “That’s an interesting idea. Maybe that would work.” And out the door he went.

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