Reflections on an Empty Grocery Shelf

I had seen it on news reports and heard about it from others. But about a week ago, when I went to the grocery store for the first time since the reality of the coronavirus was taking hold in the public mind, there it was: an empty grocery shelf in the section where paper products like toilet paper and tissues normally filled what was now vacant space.

The next day I was thinking about a new blog entry, and it occurred to me that the empty shelf carried some good coping messages. Yes, really, believe it or not!

The first thing that occurred to me was narcissism. The narcissist believes, “It’s all about me. I am the major ingredient in all life recipes. I am the crucial variable in the equation that will solve the problem.”

Now I’m not saying that all the folks who grabbed armfuls of multi-pack TP were narcissists. No doubt some of them had large families at home and were replacing their dwindling stock of TP. I bet there were even some folks who saw the shelf getting depleted, but had a decent supply at home, and decided to leave the small remainder on the shelf for others. But, for sure, there were no doubt many who had a garage full of TP, considered themselves fortunate to have stumbled on even more, and scooped up a bunch like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter. The narcissist’s mantra is, “I deserve all I can get.”

Narcissism encourages a “me vs. them” orientation. If you’re White, non-Whites are the enemy; if you’re a native-born American, immigrants – and even naturalized citizens – are the enemy; those who do not accept your beliefs are the enemy; those who would take “my TP,” are the enemy. The pathetic narcissist has a lot of enemies, and must constantly be on the defensive to avoid psychological collapse. What a weak way to try and cope with stress.

I also decided that the empty shelf symbolizes humility. I talked about humility in the 1.10.20 blog, and noted that when you lack humility, you form your own pity parade when things don’t go your way. You wail about the unfairness of it all – “I deserve better!” – and talk and think your way into becoming an emotional cripple.

Reality, however, dictates that there are always others involved. Accept that reality and you can embrace humility. You can then free yourself from your pity parade, and find uplifting empowerment and optimism. You can feel pride in your accomplishments, but understand that your successes do not grant you preferential treatment. This realization will make you more inclined to “share yourself” with others who are also fighting stress. Sharing is a powerful and productive strategy for coping with stress.

And that brings me to a third coping message from the empty shelf: the importance of empathy in the coping process. As I noted recently (3.6.20), when used to cope with stress, empathy is not sympathy, but is a sensitivity that allows you to understand others in the context of their needs, not yours. As a result, you focus your actions around values, social conscience, and morality. This focus provides both giver (you) and taker (the other) psychological benefits. There is no more effective therapy than empathetic service to others. Assist others along your life path and you will never be alone.

“All this from an empty shelf?” you exclaim. Why not? Let’s personify that shelf and imagine a conversation with it. You say, “Hello, shelf. I must say you’re looking a little depressed today.” The shelf replies, “How would you feel if your entire purpose in life has been taken from you? I am here to provide things to please people, but they have stripped me of everything I am, and left me empty.”

The empty shelf reminds me that coronavirus threatens more than our health; it also threatens who we must be as human beings. Remember, this crisis is not one where the homeland has been attacked by another country, and we can come together and resolve together to defeat the common enemy.

Rather, this crisis threatens our inner being. We – or a member of our family – may get sick, while our neighbor does not. With that possibility in mind, standing in front of the full shelf our self-preservation kicks in. Screw the neighbor! Narcissism rules, and humility and empathy are overpowered. We strip the shelf bare, and the shelf becomes us! Empty!

For our common benefit, that outcome is what we must prevent. Crises that threaten our inner being can bring out the worst in us. “Think of your neighbor,” morphs into, “Everyone for themselves!”

You have to decide which one is you and act accordingly. Which one is consistent with your values, your character, your morality, your ethics? One thing for sure: Discarding narcissism, and embracing humility and empathy will help you cope with any crisis, and also benefit others. In the final analysis, that coping strategy – not one that stresses “it’s all about me!” – is what life needs to be about.

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