I get some enjoyment out of judging people or I wouldn’t do it. But almost every time my judgmental side asserts itself, alarms go off in other parts of me. My inner depth psychologist, for one, is quick to rise up in equal force to say that what I judge in others is something I don’t want to see it in myself.

Add to that, “judge not” is the cornerstone of Christianity, my childhood religion. “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in thine own eye?” “Judge not” flowed into my being with my mother’s love. “Judge not” is like the thought equivalent of the golden rule. “Think of others as you would have them think of you.”

So I can’t win. I don’t feel good about judging, but I can’t stop judging either. What I have here is a thought war between my ideal self and my real self. I console myself with the likelihood that that’s probably true for almost everybody.

Recently, close to Christmas, I needed some groceries. But why Walmart, I’m already asking myself, walking through the door, where this conflict between my need to judge and my desire not to is immediately activated.

Yes, I was already in the area. And yes, fruits and vegetables make up the biggest part of my grocery cart, and Walmart’s produce, with its huge turnover, is by far the freshest. And also yes, I am probably unconsciously in the mood to judge. To scratch that old itch. To make myself feel better by seeing others as less. It’s like a lumpy old bed I’ve grown comfortable lying in.

Whatever the jumble of reasons, here I am on the battlefield, in the mix. To a background of Christmas carols playing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Joy to the World, etc.” I’m in one of the least jolly, joyful moods of the year, Ebenezer Scrooge ten times over, grumbling to myself that if these crowded aisles are a fair sampling of what the human race has evolved into, may the baby Jesus/ no crib for his bed please help us.

In my hour at Walmart, I don’t see one attractive person. And by “attractive” I don’t mean what most people call good looking. I’m referring rather to a light in the eyes, a sense of intelligence, of having read a book recently, a sense of awareness beyond merchandise and price tags.

What I notice instead – against all my up-bringing to see the best in people and to love my fellow man – is a big box store jampacked with toneless, grayed out zombies. The new average in America.

Oh, I’m well aware of the general decline of the average. I have my vantage points. I am myself average. I teach English at a community college, have taught English at average institutions for 50 years. I can vouch for the fact that listening skills have clearly declined, that attention deficit disorder is more the rule than the exception, that reading and writing skills creep ever lower towards the abyss.

I have in a drawer at home a letter my mother wrote to her brother dying of TB in 1940. Although she only went to school until she was 15, the letter is beautifully organized, grammatically perfect, and expresses with great feeling and restraint the good-bye she wants to say.

It’s an extraordinary letter, yet my mother and my father, their friends, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, my siblings and I and our friends growing up, we all thought of ourselves as average. All of us.. We were raised to think very highly of average. We were America. We were the people.

But this new average going on now – the current middle-class, if you will — is a middling that is far less promising, more poorly educated, less healthy, less bright, less compassionate than the middling that I grew up within. Oh, I’m not unaware that middle America, as a part of all America, has been full of wrong-headedness and wrong-heartedness from the get-go. Ask the Native American. Ask the Black. Ask the coal miner, the exploited worker so long underpaid, over-worked.

Nonetheless, for the longest time, in terms of my own life span, there seemed the likelihood that we were going somewhere as a nation, not just in terms of more wealth, but going somewhere inwardly, as everyday workaday people, in terms of our character, growing more alert to our wrongs, growing stronger in our “rights.” In the 40’s and early 50’s character development was seen as a likelihood as much as was material development. In Sunday school we sang, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world,” a song which may well have been a precursor to the civil rights movement and the war protest movement in the 60’s and 70’s.

In the 40’s/50’s/60’s/70’s, one had the feeling that the “rights” were winning out over the “wrongs.” My lifelong friend reminds me of the time we were sledding in December and I said to him, “Boy I’ve really got the Christmas spirit this year.” (We howl with laughter at that memory.) And as I think back on it, it wasn’t just the two or three presents I would get, and the oranges and nuts in my stocking, but more of a genuine feeling of good will towards men, a feeling that life itself is a huge blessing, school is a blessing, church is a blessing, family is a blessing.

I remember my father taking me with him to deliver a fruit basket to one of the maybe three or four poor families in our community of 1000, and seeing the humble insides of their house and their grateful faces…. And what about the humble insides of my family’s house. I never considered it as less than anybody’s else’s home, but looking back on it now, yes, it was indeed way on the humble side.

One of my father’s memorable sayings (stated grammatically correctly, by the way) was that he had it a little better than his parents, and I’ll have it a little better than Mom and he, and my kids will have it a little better than I. He meant materially better, but he meant more than that, too, and his emphasis was on the words “a little.” We lived on a forty acre farm, and on our Friday night trips to town, he liked to drive past the house of the richest man in Marion to make the point of how it was not much different from any other house.

In the last fifty years, what has happened to the people? We’ve gone in the other direction. The middle class – the average person — has been in decline for a long time, but do we know that it’s now an epidemic. Walking the Walmart aisles, should I not look at the evidence of this. Middle America has ceased to be the song-birds I grew up among, and has become more like herd-birds, grackles, swarm birds. This general downward flow of “average” in America is no longer a gentle decline, but an avalanche. I can’t speak for the whole world, and not for all of America, but the part I can observe has been become largely stupefied. Zombified into bland consumers on the one hand and bland escapists into the TV/internet/mobile phone on the other.

At the long checkout line, I observe the stuff being placed on the cashier’s conveyor belt — more Christmas presents than groceries, as the whole store passes through the same checkout aisles. No joy showing anyplace. A lot of people talking on their phones. No Christmas spirit in evidence. Everything gray. Everything tired.

Is this judgment or mere observation? It’s not motes in eyes that captures my attention here at Walmart, but the lack of eyes altogether. Did it have to end up this way?…And even if I understood the whys and wherefores of it all (I could bring in overpopulation; the systematic brain washing of the population through the media; the theft of the nation by the one percent; the unbelievable greed), so what? Understanding is a very small vibration against the force of an avalanche.
. . .

That said and out of the way, what I started out wanting to say in this piece is that I’m in the Walmart parking lot recently, in my car, getting t’hell out of there, focused on a Wordsworth poem, “The World Is Too Much with Us,” especially the line “Getting and spending we lay waste our lives,” when I back up smack dab into another car.

Jesus, help me. What now?… I get out. A middle-age woman rolls down her window. I say I’m very sorry, and offer to give her my insurance information. There a small ding in her car. She gets out and looks at it.

“It’s okay,” she says.

“Really?” I say.

“It’s an old car. There’s not much damage.”

“Well, at least let me give you fifty dollars,” I say, happy to keep it out of the hands of insurance
adjustors. “It’ll cost you more than that to bump it out.”

“It’s an old car,” she repeats. “Don’t worry about it.”

And at this point she pats me lightly on the shoulder, and wishes me a Merry Christmas. Standing beside my car, I watch her park, get out and walk towards the Walmart doors, looking a lot like the other Walmart shoppers.


  1. james ralston

    Thanks, James,

    The feeling is mutual. I’m very glad you are a part of this class. You, who have your own interesting stories to tell.

  2. James Buckner

    The woman at the end of the story… you describe her as “looking a lot like the other Walmart shoppers,” but she was different. Did she have the “light in the eyes,” was she attractive?

    Your inclusion of the letter written by your mother emphasis the nature of its importance in your life, both personally and as a tool of measurement.

    I’m really looking forward to learning from you this semester.


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