The Selfishness of My Altruism: shopping carts and Styrofoam peanuts

Sweet Relief!

Next time you see someone in spandex jogging with a shopping cart, think twice before you judge!

Today I went for a run and it almost immediately put me in a better mood. The colours of October are spectacular, sunshine flashing on glossy leaves of so many shades that might suit a redhead’s wardrobe. My nose filled with spicy scents of overgrown weeds, burst seedpods on the ground, rose hips, and turned soil. The air had just enough of a nip to it that my single layer of clothing was warm enough, and the sunbeams hit my head and shoulders to warm me each time I left a shady spot.

Everything was as perfect as a morning run could be, except for the damned shopping cart on its side along the running path next to I-205. The cart had not moved since I ran there two days earlier.

This time I wasn’t able to ignore it. Since my last run, I had read a blog post from Humboldt Surfriders  (I used to be the group Secretary when I lived on the North Coast) in which action on the part of members caused an eyesore of a burnt-out RV to be removed from view of the highway, and before seasonal rains dispersed the toxic mess into area waterways. I was so pleased with what they had done. Now I was confronted with my own mini-mess. Take action or enjoy the Autumn day in my own way?

Bleurg. Sometimes being a nice person bites.

The shopping cart was ditched at the end of a footbridge over the highway, with a Target store directly on the other side. The red plastic flap on the cart’s basket was the same red of Target, so I assumed it belonged there. I could anonymously push the cart across the long, noisy, nearly always empty highway footbridge, then across the large, impersonal Target parking lot. I decided to finish my run, and when I came back past the footbridge, I’d push the cart across, then jog back home.

No such luck.

When I came back to that spot I was tired and sweaty. Chest heaving, I checked the red plastic flap to confirm the store to which it belonged. It was not Target, which I could see across the highway from where I was standing. How easy it would have been to push the rattling metal cart over the roar of eight lanes of traffic and the Max green line into the Target parking lot.

The sign on the cart said Fubonn Super Market, with the street address on 82nd Street. There ensued a brief battle between the selfish and altruistic  committee members who live in my head. Altruistic won. The key argument: 82nd Street is not a whole lot farther away than Target, just the other direction. Through quiet, tree-lined neighborhoods.

Grumbling to myself, I pushed the shopping cart down the jogging path, then turned onto the first street I came to, and headed directly west toward 82nd. Shayka shayka shayka, crash! down off the sidewalk curb, rattle rattle bash bash across uneven pavement. Good grief these things make a lot of noise. Every other human being in a car or outside their house doing yard work in the morning sun turned to look at me with a frown.

The selfish committee members got a little rowdy with the lack of community support. “Hey! You can’t take this cart back, you’ll miss your workout.” Altruistic members reminded me that I could, as though I had a baby jogger, run with the shopping cart. So I did! Imagine what hilarity that must have been to watch a white lady in spandex jogging with a banging shopping cart. I wish I had been one of those people driving past me, shaking their heads at me.

Members of the selfish contingent in my head remained unhappy. They wanted a quick cart dropoff, return to the workout, and to feel self-righteous the rest of the day. Now they were suffering from embarrassment of being stared at for making an unholy racket in a family neighborhood, for being insane and jogging with a shopping cart, and {they cynically suspected} probably being judged for taking the cart so far away from the Fubonn Super Market in the first place.

You see, once in my past I was smacked in the face with the reality that doing a good deed is not often recognized by those who witness it. Once I bundled myself up in boots and gloves and hat, and spent two full hours picking up little styrofoam peanuts that had blown along a stretch of road in my neighborhood. I had been feeling so proud and superior that I almost needed a bigger hat, when a passing motorist slowed down to holler, “I guess you made yourself a big old mess there, now didn’t you?” before he drove on. I was shocked and humiliated to think that the people who saw me out there picking up peanuts now thought I was responsible for this awful, trashy, careless mess. I kept cleaning, but was much more humble about it.

The altruistic committee members in my head reminded me that better karma comes from a good deed that is actually a pain in the butt to follow through on. So I smiled at the people who stared, and made it all the way to 82nd.

Without looking, I recalled that the address on the red plastic flap had said something like 1824 82nd Street. When I reached the busy city street, with its used car lots and rental storage units, my heart sank when I read the nearest address: 1050. I would have to go eight blocks.

“Leave it here!” shouted the Selfish contingent, “You’ve brought it at least half way back.” I stopped the Altruists before they even spoke up, “Yes, yes, I know. If I leave it here, I’ve just transferred the eyesore from my neighborhood to someone else’s.” Selfish voices conceded that on that noisy ugly street filled with blue collar workers, addicts, prostitutes, college students, and waitresses waiting for the bus, I would have a better chance to meet someone along the way and explain to them what a good citizen I am. The Cynic in the committee snarked, “Oh, and so at least one person in the world will know how fabulous I am, because their approval defines my value.”

“Shut up,” I said. The mangy man slumped against a wall to my left glared at me through bleary red eyes. I looked away from him and hurried on. The crashing and bashing of the cart was at least somewhat less obnoxious out here on the side of noisy 82nd Street. Nonetheless, the sound of a shopping cart being pushed on a sidewalk is not only extremely noisy, but extremely charged with meaning. I was undergoing a prolonged exercise in humility, in exchange for skipping the exercise I had hoped for.

Finally I reached the 1800 block, and checked the red plastic flap closely to get the exact address, since I have never shopped at Fubonn Super Market, and was not really sure what I was looking for.

Crisis! The actual address was 2824 82nd Street. Ten more blocks! The committee started raging again, all interrupting each other. They were almost loud enough to drown out the noisy cart. I should have expected this: punishment for still trying to be proud of myself when all I was doing was pushing a shopping cart.

What in the world was I doing? All this just to give myself an excuse to feel proud. Well, in all fairness to myself, it was also so I didn’t have to look at the stupid cart next time I went for a run.

I grew irritable. I began cursing the homeless person who likely put the cart in my neighborhood. I began cursing the traffic noise, and the roughly paved (and unpaved) sections of my path, that made the crashing, rattling, shaking, bashing cart even louder. I even cursed the pedestrians, young men walking in tune with whatever was pounding through their gigantic headsets, elderly women clutching grocery bags, two men outside on a smoke break speaking in Thai, a young couple and their baby, walking and eating their McDonald’s take out. What was their crime in my mind? Avoiding eye contact and not speaking to me, so I couldn’t explain why a white lady in spandex was pushing a shopping cart in their turf. Feeling ridiculous, I wanted to defend myself. In reality, maybe I was just totally normal to them, and I bored them.

2400, 2500, 2750, the addresses bobbed by as I crashed along with my Grocery Jogger, and finally, finally, there it was. It’s a big supermarket. I had really never paid any attention to it before, but now of course I’ll never forget it.

I alternated running and walking all the way back (I was tired by then). It gave me time to think about humility. Is it even possible to be truly selfless? To do good and honestly not get a boost when someone notices? The whole time I kept thinking it would all be worth it if only I could tell a single soul that I was doing a good deed. I had made and discarded a dozen plans of how I could carelessly drop this little jewel into a conversation, and the people who heard it would say, “Oh, Crystal, you’re so awesome.” Ugh. I embarrass myself. Thank goodness most people don’t know how truly selfish I am; that it is often included in my motivation to be good.

But then I wonder. If selfishness gets Styrofoam peanuts cleaned up from the roadside, or gets a shopping cart returned to its home, two miles away, then is selfishness all bad?

There was a poster on the music room door when I played the French horn in the 5th grade. It said, “Each day do three good deeds. If anyone finds out, the good deed doesn’t count.” I loved that. I guess I just erased my good deed for today with this blog post. But I learned a lesson too, which I get to keep: I have a lot more work to do before I reach the level of humility I’m aiming for.

4 thoughts on “The Selfishness of My Altruism: shopping carts and Styrofoam peanuts

  1. I have a friend who’s Kemetic, and she wrote a piece on Ma’at and shopping carts. It’s short and sweet, and you may enjoy it.

    (Ma’at, btw, is the ancient Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, law, morality, and justice — also personified as a goddess.)

    As for good deeds and selfishness…I’m in support of being selfish, because I don’t believe that one can do anything completely selflessly. It’s impossible. Not to mention, people really devalue taking care of oneself as selfishness, but no one seems to realize that if you don’t take care of yourself then you can’t possibly take care of anything else. Constantly doing good deeds for other folks if said good deeds don’t make you feel better will wear you out and make you bitter and jaded.

    I think it’s important to do things that don’t make us feel better but still are good for the world, but I don’t think it should occlude all else. We’re important too, and treating ourselves like we’re not doesn’t help anyone.

    1. Katje, the blog post was a good one, and so similar to my own feelings. I love her point that doing good might be as simple as “not making life harder for someone else,” such as leaving a shopping cart out of place. Thanks for including the link.

      I appreciate your perspective on selfishness, and what you say about too many people devaluing taking care of self is so true. Still, I want to be able to get my approval from within, rather than seek it from a witness. So you’ve helped me realize there are several dynamics in this story that I need to make peace with.

    1. I appreciate your support, and your comment.

      It’s good for me, Michael, to eat a slice of humble pie now and then. I’m always trying to be more honest with myself, and sometimes just going public with my private thoughts is a way to do that.

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