Responsibility, Compassion, Justice…and the Shopping Cart

In his 1845 The Conditions of the Working Class, Friedrich Engels observes that Londoners have devolved from a cohesive society into individuals; that change, he notes, is most notable on the city streets, where Londoners fail to even make eye contact with one another. Such apathy, passivity, and ignorance about one’s fellow human tends to breed, I would argue—following Engels, injustice because they allow us to pretend that we have the right to more because we are inherently better than the other guy. In order to seek justice, we must recognize one another not only as individual humans (compassion), but as members of a society (responsibility). And today’s society is pretty big; it includes, as Thomas Friedman points out in his The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a web of nation-states, international markets, and individuals. Necessary changes are, consequently, generational, not immediate. Indeed, therein lies the problem for many of us—justice has rather limited opportunities for instant gratification.

So I offer a small place to start. Whether you call them buggies, carts, baskets, or another regionally associated name that I have not run across, you may have noticed their unfortunate inability to get themselves safely out of the parking lot. Instead, they run with the changing winds across the lots and, often, into a car. Carts are, indeed, a restless and untrustworthy lot.

The easy fix is to put them away when you finish. Oh, but what about the other guy? You know who I mean, right? He or she drives a car better than your own and appears far more entertained by the Blackberry-in-palm than concerned for the safety of the cars that remain in the lot after he or she departs the scene. Put that cart away too, maybe without the silent slandering of the person who did not do so. Corral getting full because the carts are pushed in willy-nilly? Give two minutes of your time to straighten them out, so all comers will have space. You could save someone a significant dent in his or her car.

How does putting a shopping cart away change the world? Alone, it might not, but putting away mine is an acknowledgment of my responsibility: I borrowed the cart and am now returning it to ensure that someone else has access and that said ill-controlled cart will not be marauding about the parking lot. Taking on the responsibility of someone else’s cart, especially if done without judgment (oh, the challenge), is an act of compassion—both for the person who may have gotten a life-changing phone call (how are we to know, after all?) and the people whose cars cannot protect themselves from wind-driven carts.

Each act of responsibility and compassion moves us toward justice, which seeks to treat all of humankind equally, irrespective of place in a given power structure. Justice erodes abusive hierarchies that rely on violence, stratification, and collective passivity. So, be active—do something—even something as apparently insignificant as putting away shopping carts. Then, do something else–perhaps in support of equal rights, voter access, funding for the mentally ill, sustainable farming, direct trade, or any number of other “big ticket” world changing/justice-seeking movements. Or, find other small places to work. Wherever your ethics lead you, start somewhere and develop the habits of responsibility, compassion, and justice.

As one of my heroes recently asked about himself, am I being “too hippie” in thinking we can change the world? I don’t think so, but his remark made me wonder something. What does hippie mean now, and when did it become synonymous with something unreachable or, often, negative?

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