Finding Fulfillment As a Grocery Store Cashier

“Wow” said the man, “you are still working at this store. I’m impressed. Most people with higher IQ’s don’t stay here very long.”

“Thanks?” I said, ringing him up.

“So what are you really doing with your life,” said another older gentleman as I bagged his groceries, “because clearly you’re just playing here.” I stared at him, irate.

On my second day on the job, 2 years ago, a woman asked me, “so what do you do?” (A note: I’m in the South. Complete strangers are far more likely to ask you personal questions about your life in the South.)

“I’m finishing up my degree in vocal performance. I’m trained as an opera singer,” I answered.

“Oh my goodness, what is a person like you doing in a place like this?” She asked.

A close friend sent me an email, expressing her dismay at my line of work, and hoping I will find something more “rewarding.” “You must be so bored out of your mind,” she wrote. “You are meant to be more than a grocery store cashier and an occasional yoga teacher.”

I’m an assistant manager at a grocery store. I found this job two years ago out of desperation – school and depression had kept me from finding a job for years, but I was in my mid twenties and needed something to do for work. Anything.

I wandered into a locally owned grocery store. I applied, and I was hired. I’ve been there ever sense.

The company I work for is a unique one. Owned by a local family, it sells salvaged products from larger stores like Trader Joe’s, Earth Fare and Whole Foods at a far cheaper price, helping people eat who would otherwise have no healthy options. We also help build the local economy by selling produce from local farmers, and goods from local companies and breweries. We feed the entire county, and our stores have become a hub for a complex community. I’ve made friends – good friends – with customers and employees. They have me over for breakfast, share stories about their depression, breakups, and pets.

Despite my joy at having found a genuinely good place to work, outside critics seem disappointed. People often want me to be in a high-power job that involves more brain, or they feel somehow robbed that I’m not doing vocal concerts and recitals. They look at me like I must be miserable, bored, wasting my life or my talents.

This hurts.

I’m not wasting my life, I want to tell them. I’m working. And I’m working here because this was the only place in our economy that I could find at the time. I’m just grateful that I had the incredible luck that the place I found was enjoyable and a good fit, too. Most people don’t have such luck.

I’ve been fighting for my life, I want to tell them – these elder critics who have the gall to be disappointed in my line of work. I’ve been fighting against depression and low self esteem for years, and claiming this job and becoming manager is a victory, not a failure. This job gives me hope.

But most of all, I get angry and frustrated at the assumption that working in a grocery store is a waste of time.

The most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the past 2 years is this: nothing done mindfully and with full presence is a waste of time.

Whether I like it or not, this is my life. Forty hours of that life are spent cashiering, managing teenagers on their first job, cleaning up messes, talking to customers, and sometimes being exhausted, miserable, and bored. 40 hours a week is a good chunk of my life, and what a tragedy – what a horror – to miss it. The great lesson is this: it is not prestige, power, or money that makes something worthwhile, but mindfulness. Every moment is precious.

If I choose to let my mind go elsewhere – if I choose to let my awareness and presence withdraw from my work, even when I am unhappy or exhausted or angry – it is my life that I am missing. I am missing the full experience of being human, the myriad of small wonders that make life beautiful. If I let myself withdraw from the experience, I lose all potential for happiness.

Sometimes it is time to move on. Sometimes we are miserable in a way that requires action, or help. Sometimes we simply grow into new skins, leaving the old ones behind. But even here mindfulness and presence are indispensable. How will we know what sort of misery we feel, and what response is best, if we aren’t fully present to that misery, as to an old friend? How will we know what steps to take if we only withdraw from the miracle of life?

Someday I will move on from the grocery store. I have dreams on the horizon. But till that day, I will remain present, and grateful. I invite everyone else to explore this gift with me – the gift of finding worth and joy in the present moment, no matter what that moment is.

 

10 Comments

  1. I notice you’ve reposted this from a while back, so I guess it’s still timely. It was an insight of St. JoséMaria Escrivà, the founder of Opus Dei, and proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council, that any honest work is a means for growth in personal holiness and for sanctifying the world. Our secular employment is not compartmentalized from our spiritual life. I’m happy to see you saying something along the same line.

  2. Thank you for this blog post. I needed to hear this kind of perspective to know that I’m not alone and my inner conflicts about the ministry I do and the call I sense God calls me to do are not appropriate for a believer who focuses on thankfulness in his life.
    As to esoteric Christianity, I need to explore your site more and see what you mean by that term. But I sense that your approach is close to or resembles Christian mysticism (something I tend to identify).

  3. I had similar frustrations when I worked in retail. I chose retail, I had other options, I loved helping people, getting to know people, and the new adventure each day held. It’s so refreshing to read something from someone else who felt similarly.

  4. I’m glad you are working. I had to leave school and find a job too, and I was a janitor. I hated it, actually, and it paid terrible, but at least it was work. Depression and anxiety have made it hard for me to work too,but I do it. Being present fully is something I’ve never been good at but will have to cultivate. Its hard, but gradually I do try…

  5. I love your perspective here! I find myself waiting for something better in life at the expense of missing important lessons in life. I’m glad you’ve chosen to learn from this opportunity in life rather than waiting anxiously for something to happen! Now I want to read more about mindfulness so that I can apply this principle to my job.

  6. No one should tell you how to live or make a living. Just as everyone is important so is the works they do toward fulfilling their destiny. We all have various gifts and should share them. Continue to share your gifts of voice both in song and written form. Your words are truly thought provoking and inspiring.

  7. Hello.

    You know, some of the best jobs I ever had, were simple jobs. Not very complicated, nor taxed my brain into insanity of a grinding 40 hour a week job. I’ve been a bag boy in a grocery, I was a line cook in a southern chicken shack, I scooped ice cream for a season or two as well. I loved those jobs because I was part of a community at work. They were simple jobs that involved service to others, in many ways. It made me appreciate working for good money with good people.

    People might think you are low browing it by working in that grocer, that you need to be someplace better, or more challenging, ergo making more money at what they think YOU should be doing. I would likely guess, that they probably don’t even know what it means to have a simple job that is good for them, where they didn’t need to necessarily think about the job. You know what happens when people ASSUME right?

    They make an ass out of U and Me.

    Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you love what you do, then do it, and ignore those folks.

    And maybe one day you might get ballsy and really say, “You know I like it here, it suits me, so shut up…”

    J.

  8. Many people spend years working a job they hate, many work a job that is nothing but stress and hours away from family. Working a job that is satisfying, serving a good purpose and one you are happy with is the best job no matter what it is. Hang in there and ignore the negativity. Where would we be without grocery store workers?

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