Last week, I bought some coffee. We normally wait for our brand to be on special, but failing that, we can buy un- ground coffee, and grind it at the coffee mill outside the cashier’s area of the supermarket. So far, so good. But then I discover that the coffee mill is broken! What to do? So I went back to the cashier who supervises the self serve check-out and told her the story. She said ‘You have to go to where they sell the flowers and get a refund.’ Which I dutifully did.
I went away from the supermarket in tears. What joy. In French, I had managed a task that in English I would not have thought twice about. Instead of just impotently paying for the coffee and copping a loss, I managed to do something that every citizen has a right to do, but for me, in a foreign language.
This is why I love my weekly trips to the supermarket. At the Supermarket I get to practise my language skills at ever increasing levels of complexity, by dealing with more complex situations as I progress in French. So far I have learned to ask where a great range of things are, if they have them ‘out the back’, how to use the self serve checkout, and how to make small talk with the check-out staff.
I am about ten years old, in French. Robert Kegan’s theory of psycho-social development pinpoints this gage group. He says that after a person has learned to get control of their bodily functions (inputs and outputs), and after they have learned to have some control over their emotions (at about ages 4 – 7), then comes the development of genuine self esteem, through achievement and skill development.
I have found that I can only be ‘as a person’ at the age I am ‘in the language I am using’. That is why I think I am about 10 years old, in French. But it is also why I take such joy in the gradual complexity of the situations I can comfortably handle in French. Even though I have developed a number of skills, it is always good to remind myself of where genuine pride comes from: the genuine mastery of a skill.
But here is another thing. I can remember being very reticent to go to ask for refunds on goods. Once, at about 21, I bought my first suit. Five minutes after I had bought the suit I did not like it, so I went back to the shop. Of course, in an effort to put me off, the person to whom I spoke said that the person who had sold the suit to me was ‘on their tea break’. So I said “I’ll wait.” Eventually I got my money back.
Now this series of events was an exercise in my being a citizen, a customer, a person with rights. This is also why I love the supermarket. This is the most regular place where I have the opportunity to be a member of the society in which I am living, through the exercise of being a person. And this happens in a myriad of ways, within the small society of the Supermarket. The most important phrase I have learned in French for use at the supermarket is ‘Allez y”. It means ‘Go there”. This is the phrase to use, which, when combineed with other phrases like ‘You don’t have many items”, invites another person to go ahead of me: ‘Allez y’! Or when I nearly crash into some one with my trolley, I can say ‘Sorry, Allez y’. Being polite and generous in the supermarket is a great delight. It is a lovely way to ‘be a person’.
But then if someone is blocking my path, I can, instead of passively waiting, or wordlessly pushing past them, say ‘Excuse me’. Or, as in the way that I began this reflection, I can embark on some more complex transactions.
In all of these cases, I am being affirmed as a Person (capital ‘P’) because I can exercise some ‘capacity to make a difference’. I can do things in this society, I am recognised by the staff as a regular.
Now these same kinds of processes also happen within the groups of people who are perfectly competent within their own language.
I am thinking for example of the story of Jesus and the woman who had the haemorrhage. She wanted to be healed in secret, and slink away, but Jesus invites her to be recognised within the society of those whom he allows to touch him. He will not be made unclean by them, but they will be made clean by him. That is the new society of the reign of God. She becomes a ‘person’ through being recognised by him.
In my own life, there are lots of things that I do because I think that they are important. I do not expect recognition for them, because I do these things for their own sake. But when someone does recognise them, I feel great, because what kind of ‘person’ I am has been recognised by another.
And as a Christian, there is also great benefit in skill development. At the Eucharist on Wednesdays, Genzana, who is four, comes with her mother. Now she is helping to pour the wine and water at the offertory. She helps with the ablutions, and with the putting away of the vessels. Genzana, through this participation, is performing what it means to be a member of the congregation, and not just someone’s child, who plays with the toys while we are doing Eucharist, waiting for the grown-ups to do their thing. Like me in the supermarket, performing at my level of competence what it means to be a member of the society, so Genzana in the Eucharist is performing at her capacity, what it means to be a citizen of the Reign of God.
At another dimension of analysis, this is why the Australian government’s policy of putting people away on islands, with no hope, no process to follow, and no power is so terrible. It makes ‘non-persons’ of persons.
All of the small joys and achievements that I can experience at the supermarket, that go toward my feeling like, and being recognised as a ‘Person’ are denied these ‘people’. Gradually, their sense of what it means to be ‘people’ is eroded. This can only mean that the policy of the government its to purposely break the connection between what this group of ‘people’ is, intrinsically, and how they are treated. They are denied what it takes to be a ‘Person’.
As a Christian, whose life is founded upon the recognition offered to me in Christ, first by God the Father, and then by the Church as the Body of Christ, I can rejoice in the places where this conferred personhood can be exercised in other spheres of life. But I must weep, and object when this inherent personhood of all humans is purposely denied to others.
I learned this at the supermarket.