I’m not quite halfway through a wonderful vacation in Florida. Last week, just after I arrived, I stopped at the nearest grocery store to stock up on all of my vacation favorites: pineapple, cherries, pudding cups and channa masala (yes, mom, I’m eating other things, as well). Check-out was uneventful and I was back loading the fridge in no time.
“Cool story, bro,” you say in a monotone with drooping eyelids.
I agree. It’s not a very interesting story.
Yet isn’t that how most of the moments of our lives go? We do our job. We talk to the same people about the same things. We go to the same market and buy refills of the same list of items we always buy. Checkout is pretty much the same each time. We go home. We flip on the TV and watch the same station, the same shows. We check our email. We go to bed. We do it all again the next day.
I want to tell you that there is an alternate reality available to anyone wondering how to have a better life.
My own alternate reality was, in fact, the boring one I depicted above. My real reality at the grocery store went like this:
I’m not quite halfway through a wonderful vacation in Florida. Last week, just after I arrived, I stopped at the nearest grocery store to stock up on all of my vacation favorites: pineapple, cherries, pudding cups and channa masala. The cashier at the check-out line was an older woman, perhaps in her mid-seventies. She smiled pleasantly enough and asked the usual question: “Paper or plastic?”
I picked up on the way she said the “L” sound in “plastic” and decided to go out on a limb.
<< Вы русская?>> (“Are you Russian?”) I asked her.
She immediately stopped ringing items, reached across the conveyor and clutched my hand.
<< Да, русская, очень спасибо! >> (“Yes, I am, thank you so much!”) she beamed, smiling broadly now with tears welling.
Not much throws me, but her reaction caught even me a little off-guard. I couldn’t help but match her smile, and I even felt the sting of tears right along with her. For some reason, this interaction was very meaningful for her. We continued in Russian, as she scanned my items.
“I’m Erik. Why so thankful?” I asked her with a quizzical raise of eyebrow.
“Hello, Erik! I’m Svetlana! I have been here a long time now,” she told me, “and it has been many years since anyone has spoken to me in my own language.” She wiped a tear away as surreptitiously as possible with one hand, while reaching for some yogurt with her other. “Is your family Russian?”
“No,” I said. “I study a bit on my own, but I don’t have many opportunities to speak.”
“You speak well!” she gushed, giving voice to her previously unspoken compliment. “Not just one word, but whole sentences and with strong voice!” She punctuated the last words with a determined face and firm shake of her fist.
“Well, thank you very much!” I laughed, truly flattered at the sincere compliment.
All of the food was through and it was time to pay. She patted my hand once more, grinning that wide grin with still-moist eyes. “Thank you! Please come back and see me.”
“My pleasure, and I will! See you soon then, Svetlana.”
“Until then, Erik.”
The whole exchange took not more than a couple of minutes, but it was remarkable. What would otherwise have been a mundane activity had been transformed into a beautiful and memorable moment of connection between two real people. She was no longer “the cashier.” I was no longer “the customer.” We were just two new friends.
The middle-aged woman bagging my items had filled the cart again and asked, “Help?” I could tell her first language was Spanish both by her accent and the name on her tag: Rosa.
“Yes, thanks, Rosa,” I said in English, still smiling. I could tell that Rosa had been intent on the exchange between Svetlana and me. Though she did not understand what we had said, she was clearly moved by it, realizing she had witnessed something deeply and personally meaningful to her co-worker. When we’d completed the short walk to my car and all the food was nearly inside, I addressed Rosa again, in Spanish this time. “¿Y dice español, Rosa, verdad?” (“And you speak Spanish, Rosa, right?”)
Rosa’s reaction was just as priceless and full of personality. She drew in a long breath with an open mouth and almost flirtatious look, as if I’d just told her she was beautiful. “¡Ay, sabe, claro!” she sang, clearly meaning (if not outright saying), “Oh, I see how you are, mister! You speak my language, too!” The change in her was immediate and drastic. She felt included. She felt valued.
I thanked her briefly in Spanish and wished her a good day, as she did in return.
Now, in all honestly, my exchanges with both women were of the most rudimentary sort. Beginner level, really. But the languages themselves are not my point here. Speaking even one word of another language is not a key factor in leaving your hum-drum rut behind and entering the alternate reality waiting all around you. Here are the ingredients for those of you wondering how to have a better life starting right now. Ready?
Keep your eyes open. Every human being around you is a real person, just like you, with a whole life of experience to share, if even just for a moment.
As you go about your day – before you even head out the door, in fact – make it your purpose to treat people as people, and to allow time to connect, to listen and to learn something new about others.
The *zing* that comes with going outside your comfort zone is a wonderful thing. It gets the blood pumping. It wakes you up – physically, mentally and emotionally. It makes you feel alive.
I come across as a pretty confident and outgoing guy. And in most ways, I am. But I’ll be honest. It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken either Russian or Spanish to a native speaker; and even my one-to-one encounters across a lifetime don’t really amount to all that much. It could have gone really badly! I was in a time-pressured situation with people waiting behind me at the check-out. What if she wasn’t really Russian and I’d misheard that “L” sound? What if I just wound up making a fool of myself? What if I didn’t know the words and, under the time constraint, it became awkward; or worse yet, if I wound up inadvertently saying something offensive. What if … ?
I say SO WHAT? That’s why positive social risks are called risks – because there is always a personal challenge involved and the chance that it won’t go as planned. The key is to take yourself a little less seriously in life. Motive speaks louder than actions. And if it’s an absolute fail, will it matter in a year (or even a week, or a day … or a minute later)? Don’t let fear lock you into the endless patterns of an unremarkable life.
How many cool, memorable and energizing moments are you missing out on each day? More importantly, how many will you determine to find – to create – from here on out? I encourage you to explore the alternate realities awaiting all around you, until they become your new reality.
Do you have your own “alternate reality” story to share, of how an otherwise routine moment was transformed by your choices, or the choices of someone else in your world? Why not encourage other readers by sharing it below?