“Unfortunately the place was practically empty due to Coronavirus fears. I had the swordfish special with lime cilantro butter. I couldn’t taste either the lime or the cilantro. I give it a B+.”
—a review written by “LewisF" for Manhattan’s Grand Central Oyster Bar on March 12, 2020.
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, pinned between the cracker aisle and the deli case. It was the second grocery store I’d visited—masked, of course—on an out-of-town trip, and the second time I found myself annoyed with shoppers who were whisking past me and my cart. These people are practically brushing up against me, the voices of my internal chorus groused. Do they have no sense of personal space in this town?
Within the safety of my car, a wave of self-awareness washed over me in the most random way possible: I found myself thinking about scented candles.
Earlier in the month, I’d read about the research of two women who each conducted their own analysis of online reviews for scented candles. Both of them discovered that as Covid-19 spread across the U.S. and (among other things) stripped people of their sense of smell, online reviews for fragrant products—but not unscented ones—grew more negative. Thousands of people wrote reviews complaining, for example, “This is one of the weakest Yankee Candle scents I’ve ever had the displeasure of purchasing.” This trend was mirrored by a spike in reviews from angry people claiming that their favorite restaurant was suddenly serving bland food.
At the time, I’d gone down this rabbit hole of human nature happily—nay, smugly—chuckling about how clueless some people are about their own reality, and how readily they assign fault externally to avoid grappling with a painful internal truth. Surely I could never be so dense!, I’d concluded.
Reader, I can.
Driving my groceries home, two things dawned on me. First, the gentle shoppers in the narrow store aisles weren’t the problem; after a year of quarantine, it’s my own “being in public” comfort levels that are fragile and tender. I’m going to need to practice being two feet away from strangers before I raise the stakes with, say, air travel.
The more unsettling lesson—which makes it more worthy of notice—was about owning what’s mine. Telling a truer story about myself made for a more generous story about those around me.
May I have the humility to admit when I’m no savvier than a stranger on the Internet; the willingness to laugh at myself; and the wisdom to be curious when I find myself grumbling about “them.”