I wrote the original draft of this on 5 January 2012. See the note at the end.
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I went to the local temple of mass consumption the other day because I needed a few groceries, and I also needed to return some empty soda bottles. I was having an okay day, but was surprised to see that the parking lot was packed. All the big holidays are over, and as far as I know, there’s nothing special about January 3.

I went to the room at the back of the store where you shove your empty bottles into machines to get your deposit back. As I approached, I saw a lady with a cart full of empties standing just outside the door and pretty much blocking my way in, which slightly annoyed me. But as I got nearer, I could see that she was standing at the end of a very long line. The room was packed, the floor was a sticky mess (doesn’t anyone ever mop this room?), and everyone seemed impatient and surly.

I decided to do my grocery shopping first. I was able to get most of the items on my list, but was mildly annoyed to find that they were out of the posh lettuce they had advertised. The sale only started the day before. How can you run out one day into a seven-day sale? I kept shopping, but several other items in the produce department which were supposed to be on sale were also sold out. How is this possible in the western world? And more importantly, why is my day turning into a White Whine sort of day?

I finally made it to the parking lot and saw something that changed my entire view of the day. Not so far ahead of me, a young man in his mid to late twentieswas pushing a cart with a small child in it. The child was bald—or at least had lost most of his hair. He looked no more than three years old and at the end of a long series of chemotherapy treatments. He looked tired and the man I took as his father looked absolutely exhausted.

Now, lest this post degenerate into a “there but for the grace of God go I” sort of essay, I feel obligated to point out that both of them, father and son, seemed, well, happy. Their lives may have been miserable in the long run, but on this balmy day which was warm (for January) and dry, their lives were a little bit better than they would otherwise have been.

I realized then now how lucky I was, but how lucky they were. Need to stand in line for ten or fifteen minutes to return some empty bottles? No problem—it’s just a little more father/son time. Can’t find the posh lettuce that was advertised? No problem—let’s have a scavenger hunt here in the produce department for something equivalent. Have to spend a bit more time at the grocery store than we had planned because things aren’t completely perfect for us? No problem—it’s not so bad spending a little time away from home, floating along in a little bubble of our own creation. And that’s what they were in, too: a magic bubble of their own creation.

If a person in your family has a chronic medical condition, home can easily become a place littered with medical supplies, the steady electronic beep of medical equipment dubstepping its incessant tattoo into your eardrums, the bitter smell of medications etched into your nostrils, and—in an ironic twist—the incessant flood of paperwork that soon comes to dominate your life. Getting out of  the house, even for such a mundane task as buying groceries, can become a real privilege.

They were lucky because they could reframe these minor annoyances in a way that I was incapable of. What was bad for the type-A personality was perfectly okay for a personality that did not categorize other people into personality types. They paid a high price for this understanding; their sacrifice would be wasted if we did not learn it as well.

Which made me think: it is easy to feel sorry for, or bad about, those who are obviously worse off in some way than we are. I have never been the parent of a child with a life-threatening disease, nor have I been such a child. But think: had this child been wearing a hat I would never have had a clue that there was anything amiss in their lives. They would have seemed like tired, but happy, survivors of the recent holiday season. And indeed, they were both survivors, although of a different caliber than I would have imagined otherwise.


I actually began this post a long time ago, when the events I described actually happened, but found it impossible to continue with. I worked on it some over the following summer, when I was going through some difficult times myself, and finally finished it up today.

I have not seen the father or child since.

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