Rector's Ramblings May 20, 2020
What’s in a grocery cart? These days, it’s a lot for some folks. If you have been limiting the frequency of your shopping trips it’s probably true that your cart is more full than usual each time you check out. Grocery carts can illustrate something else about us, too. What we do with them when we’re done might reveal something about us. What does it say about us when we return our carts? When we don’t return our carts? Potentially, a lot.
Grocery cart ethics is not a new topic. You can google it and find a number of interesting articles and studies involving the return or abandonment of carts in parking lots. The topic has been making the rounds on social media this month as an example of the limits of self-government. This new application provides a window into the debate about the social distancing guidelines and how folks respond to them…or don’t. Before addressing that, let’s look at general everyday cart etiquette.
I’m sure all of us have had occasions where a shopping cart blocked a parking space we wanted to pull into. Others have had the unpleasant experience of returning to our cars to find a dent or a scuff, with the offending “wild” cart resting calmly nearby. I confess that I’m a natural norm follower. I return my carts and get annoyed at those who don’t (with a few exceptions). As a teenager, I parked far from a cart return and was running late for work as I finished my shopping one day; even then I didn’t want to leave my cart unattended, so I rolled down my window, grabbed the cart, and drove it to the return on my way out of the parking lot. Unfortunately, a friend saw me and has ridiculed me ever since. I’m also the guy who will retrieve random carts and get them out of harm’s way or work to get more carts in the cart return so there’s room for other carts. Yep. I’m that guy. You can call me the Ned Flanders of retail parking lots.
Some stores are worse than others. For example, I see far fewer carts unattended at Harris Teeter than at Target or Wal Mart. That could be a function of the number of employees assigned to cart duty, but who knows? The Brunswick Target sidewalk from the parking area is often an obstacle course of red plastic mesh. But here’s the thing with returning carts. It’s a voluntary decision to do what most of us would agree is “the right thing” for everyone’s benefit. There are circumstances where not returning a cart could be acceptable; parents with young children that can’t be left unattended while returning a cart (I’ve juggled car seats and shopping carts before), those with infirmities who just can’t manage to do it, and…that’s about it. The rest of us don’t really have good reasons for not returning them. (Please don’t argue that it’s someone’s job to return a cart; that job exists to get the carts from the return into the store. There is no job description for a grocery cart valet parker, although most of those folks will help if they are walking by. We might use the same argument for throwing trash on the floor instead of putting it in a garbage can. Someone will eventually pick it up, but that doesn’t mean it’s their job.)
One man has a series of YouTube videos that show his encounters with people around the country, who don’t return their carts. He calls himself a Cart-Narc. I don’t recommend following his example of public shaming. One man was so annoyed, he threatened to kill him. It’s a form of satire, of course, but it’s an interesting reflection on human nature, too. While I get annoyed when folks don’t return their carts, I haven’t ever confronted anyone, nor do I plan to!
Those who have studied this say there are a few categories of cart returners. People who always return them, people who rarely return them, people who return them when it’s convenient, and people who only return when there is some external pressure, like the cart return guy watching you! Research has also proven that if we see abandoned carts, we’re more likely not to return ours. In fact, unreturned grocery carts in a parking lot can lead to other norm-busting behaviors. Study after study shows that if we see evidence of someone else breaking a norm, we’re much more likely to break one too, even a different one. If we find a flyer under our windshield our behavior can be affected by the presence or lack of unreturned shopping carts. When there are unreturned carts strewn about, far more people will litter and drop their flyer on the ground instead of throwing it away.
So why all the fuss about the norm of returning a shopping cart? Because it’s a seemingly benign illustration of human behavior and why we do or don’t do the right thing. We can use it to study how convenience, peer pressure, and being seen affects how we behave. Shopping cart behavior may be informative about how we can determine what appropriate behavior in a society looks like. Returning a shopping cart is relatively convenient in most cases and is seen as an objective good. It’s also not illegal not to leave it unattended, meaning there’s no punishment for abandoning it. When we choose not to return it (for those who can), we have chosen a behavior that goes against the common good because no one has forced us to act rightly. We can immediately see the problems that can arise if that same behavior pattern becomes the trend in other areas.
The social media meme that raises this issue in the current context is hyperbolic and designed (it seems) to suggest why local, state, or federal leaders have, in some cases, chosen to enforce guidelines about social distancing during the pandemic. The hope would have been that we’d all do the right things because they are the right things. Like the carts, however, we saw that wasn’t always the case. The shopping cart becomes an illustration of the limits of self-governing at a time we’re debating such things. If there is no punishment for going without a mask or ignoring social distancing recommendations, will we do it? Most of us would agree that it’s the right thing to do until we have a better handle on testing and treatment of this particular virus. Some of us will do it all the time. Others rarely. Others, when it’s convenient, and others, when it seems to fit with what they see around them. Just because we can leave our carts wherever we want, or ignore public health recommendations doesn’t mean we should do either.
For the Christian, if it’s the right thing, it’s always the right thing no matter who’s watching, who’s with us, and whether there’s a punishment or a reward. Jesus taught us that we should be trustworthy in the small things and the big things alike. We should always seek the common good, even if it costs us something. Righteousness and morality are muscles we must regularly exercise a little bit at a time, so our muscles are ready for the big things when they come. Said another way, the small stuff matters too. Some things are a lot more serious than shopping carts. I’m not going to say that those who don’t return their shopping carts are automatically bad members of society. But what we do with our cart does say something about us.
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.