I pressed my lips together beneath the mask I wore and blinked back tears at the older gentleman’s hard, angry words coming from the other side of the Walmart pharmacy counter. They found my heart like pinpricks of metal darts finding their target. Frustration stirred as I assured the man that the staff—limited as we might be—were doing all we could to get his medicine to him as quickly as possible.
As I shoved the tears aside and called the next customer in line, a man with glasses and a blue mask, I berated myself. Wasn’t I past this? I’d worked in retail for more than five years, now. Angry customers weren’t exactly an anomaly. Why did I let it get to me?
As I punched the next customer’s name and information into the computer, I thought about quitting. I could walk out of here right now and never look back. Sure, the ten hours a week was a small financial help, but we could do without it. I’d even have more time to write. (A lovely, perfect job in my head in that moment. A job where characters must obey my every command and where no one can be mean to one another without my permission!)
Instead, I swallowed down my frustration, and talked myself out of quitting—mostly because I couldn’t leave my co-workers on such a busy day. The pandemic had worn on all of us, as it had with all of humanity. The rollout of vaccines and boosters had doubled our workload, it seemed we were always short on COVID tests or masks or hydrogen peroxide or medications. And all while the normal business of a pharmacy must continue.
I handed a prescription bag to the customer with the glasses and blue mask and told him to have a nice day, my heart not really in the words. His kind eyes caught my own though, hinting at a smile beneath his mask. “You’re doing a great job,” he said.
It was almost enough to start the tears again. Such a small thing, to be encouraged. And yet there was more to it. This man had seen me. He had seen my struggle with the previous customer. He had spoken something so small, and yet so powerful in that moment. I am grateful for him, and for those who choose patience and encouragement in the midst of the rush and chaos that is so often the retail world—and, our world in general.
This season has so many blessings, and yet the consumerist frenzy can consume us in its tornado-like turmoil. My oldest son now works at the same Walmart I do in the online grocery pickup department. He came home after his shift Saturday night and told us that a woman on the phone had yelled at him to grow a part of his body he already has, and tell his managers how the orders weren’t on time (they know). With not enough workers and the Black Friday rush, there’s only so much one team can do.
On the surface, it seems my sixteen-year-old son can handle these comments better than I can, and yet they pull a deep sadness from me. This is the humanity my son is learning to accept. It can stir up criticism and judgment from the best of us. More than once, I’ve doubted the wisdom of encouraging him to work in what can be such a soul-sapping place.
And then I remember the encouragement and smile of the man with the glasses. I remember a customer who offered to pay for another customer’s much-needed prescription. I remember the kind notes and sweet gifts many customers have shared with the pharmacy staff. I remember those on the other side of the counter whom I have come to truly care for. I remember the way my co-workers make me laugh. I remember how, in our own way, we love one another.
This is why I still choose to work at Walmart. This is humanity—in all its messiness, with glimpses of grace between. In many ways, this is life.
If I tuck myself behind the safety of my computer screen day-in and day-out, I’m certain my stories will be stifled. People—the good parts, the bad parts, and everything in-between—are what inspire me to write as I chase after light in the dark places.
And I pray and trust that my son isn’t just seeing the bad at his job, but that he’s seeing good as well. I pray that we both will be a part of that good.
Dear reader, I pray you would be a part of that light too, this Christmas season and all year round. In a world of hurry and impatience, of quick tempers and quick words, may we offer a kind smile, a word of encouragement to those trudging away, day after day, in the world of retail. Many of them are feeling the weight of constant aggravation from customers who want what they want now.
A kind word, a kind smile can truly make a world of difference. Compassion, gentleness, patience, understanding. Will you please offer it? If not for me, then perhaps for the sake of my sixteen-year-old son, for the sake of future generations, and for the sake of hope for our hurting world?
Merry Christmas! May light and hope find you this season and may God bless you with His presence and joy.