By SuzAnne M. Miller
Uncomfortable and hesitant, I search for the words to confess a truly petty act of which I am ashamed. An act that pulls back the curtain to reveal the smallness of me. I don’t want to disclose it, but I will. For while it is an insignificant speck of dust in the grand scheme of things, my shabby mean little act made me pause in search of meaning, which has, in turn, led me to some insights that I do want to share.
Tired and hungry after a long day of shuttling vehicles on bumpy dirt roads for my husband’s float trip down the Smith River, I began the final leg of my trip in a car packed to the gills. Anxious to get home and not wanting to stop for real food, I pulled into the McDonald’s in Helena. As I entered the drive-through, I realized I needed to empty some used drinking cups in order to make room for a new one. Upon asking a pleasant young woman at the first pay window to help me dispose of a couple of partially full cups, she politely informed me that is was against company policy to accept anything at the windows. I repeated my simple request at the next “pick up” only to be delivered the same, scripted response. I snapped. In one swift and totally uncharacteristic move, I threw my garbage out my car window and defiantly asked if this too was against company policy. The poor young girl fled from the window and a level headed manger appeared. She handed me the meal with a smile, and asked someone to go out and clean up after me. I slunk away bewildered. What had just happened? Where did my normally polite self go?
I brooded over my misbehavior intermittently for several days before moving on. Then my son emailed a link to a long story in the recent edition of the New Yorker (June 11 and 18, 2016) by George Saunders, in which the author reports on his cross America trip to talk with voters, trying to uncover the genesis of our low grade, confrontational presidential election season. He ended up focusing on the concept of grievance. His article includes the following:
“While reporting this story, I drove from New York to California. During all those days on the highway, with lots of time on my hands for theorizing, generalizing, and speaking my generalized theories into my iPhone while swerving off into the spacious landscape, I thought about this idea of grievance, of feeling left behind. All along the fertile interstate-highway corridor, our corporations, those new and powerful nation-states, had set up shop parasitically, so as to skim off the drive-past money, and what those outposts had to offer was a blur of sugar, bright color, and crassness that seemed causally related to more serious addictions.”
There it is was, so beautifully articulated by Mr. Saunders. My petty little act was an expression of my own momentary self-loathing for having given in to easy, cheap junk food and for being subjected to “company policies” created by nameless people in nameless, distant locations who cared nothing about me except to “skim off” my money.
I thought about it and dug for deeper meaning. For years I have been a punch card holder for the local Florence Coffee stands in our area. There I routinely exchange my used cups for new, full ones. Dunrovin gives them empty paint buckets which they happily fill with their used coffee grounds so we can add them to our large garden. Their “company policies” have never been mentioned. The company owners live down the road. Our exchanges are personal and meaningful. To them, I am a real person, a member of our shared community.
There is simply no denying the individual isolation wrought by our new global economy. We now negotiate much of our business through automated telephone trees, call centers in distant countries with people we have absolutely no chance of ever meeting, and complicated web sites with multiple passwords that refuse to divulge a phone number to connect with a real person. If we show the slightest interest in a product on the internet, we are then digitally stalked for weeks with ads popping up wherever we go. Our towns and cities are lined with international storefronts that blend our unique characteristics into bland uniformity. We have all become mere numbers, points on a demographic scale, nothing more than targets for sophisticated marketing algorithms. Consumers.
This grievance comes from the mouth a biometrician (a statistician), someone who is comfortable with statistical algorithms and someone who, on the whole, has benefited financially from the global economy. How must people feel who have lost their jobs, slipped down the economic ladder, or seen their dreams for their children crushed by the great recession caused by behemoth corporate banks relentlessly searching for profits? How do they keep their smaller selves behind their curtains? Why don’t they snap – or is that what is happening to us now as our country divides itself into numerous individual tribes, nursing our respective grievances and blaming one another?
We desperately need to pause and look at each other and see each other for the human beings that we are. We need to drop the language and labels of conservatives and liberals, and perhaps most importantly, we need to measure the meaning of life by something other than money. The global corporate world has reduced us to financial transactions for too long.
We in backwater Montana (thank God!) have retained the remnants of a civil, caring and personal society. We know each other. We care. And generally we are able to argue over specifics and still smile and acknowledge each other at the post office. We must hold on to this, to defend it, for we are not immune from the dehumanization that diminishes us all.
I am suddenly aware of what is really at stake when we as a community discuss such important decisions as whether to destroy the downtown Mercantile building to make way for a national hotel chain or not. How do we meaningfully balance economic considerations with cultural and historical heritage? Which path most contributes to a community where people feel valued, included and connected? It is fitting and proper that we take the time to deliberate these questions fully and strive to make wise choices. Let’s not kid ourselves. Shifting our priorities to individuals, community, and our beautiful environment means economic sacrifices.
I don’t like my small self, and I am quite sure that the fine McDonald’s employees in Helena don’t like it either. But it did teach me something important. My grievances did not belong on the asphalt in the McDonald’s drive through. I must put them to work. I must harness their energy to redouble my efforts and strengthen my commitment to helping build a community that nurtures the big selves in us all – a community that is not a mere colonial outpost of the indifferent global economy.