“Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”
There are thoughts I have when I go to the grocery store at 10 PM to buy chocolate. Bear with me here.
I think checkout aisles are a microcosm of human existence.
What do you typically see when you go through a checkout aisle?
The Right Side of the Aisle: Instant Gratification and Distraction
On your right, there are a million small items the store wants you to remember that you need. Candy bars. Energy supplements. Knick-knacks. Cigarettes. Lottery tickets. Each one is oh-so-cheap and promises quick gratification to hunger or exhaustion or boredom. Many of them deliver.
On occasion, these millions small items relatively harmless. Over time and grocery trips, they become a million small paper cuts – enough to make you bleed. They are time sinkers. They are wealth-eaters. They prey on any common sense you might have had to stick to your grocery list.
The right side of the checkout aisle is the path of instant gratification. It’s not much different than every purchase we make to alleviate our boredom, every pursuit of meaningless or unearned pleasure, or every distraction we create to avoid the work of self-improvement that we all have to do. Extrapolated out far enough, these things turn us into beggars and then into beasts. What the right side of the checkout aisle represents is anything other than harmless pleasure.
The Left Side of the Aisle: Perverse Imagination and Second-Hand Thinking
On your left in the checkout aisle, there is a large array of eyecatching and colorful photos and headlines. “Your Favorite Pop Star is Heroin Addict,” they tell us. “The President Is An Interdimensional Insect” others say. You sometimes have to wonder who reads these tabloids. And yet your eyes are still drawn inevitably. They’re so colorful, they’re so bold, and they’re so full of attractive and powerful and important people. Sure, they’re mostly fake and hateful and envious and condescending. Sure, they fund some of the world’s most predatory journalists and photographers. But surely it couldn’t hurt to just look?
The others – the few exceptions – are the magazines which promise a new and improved you, inspirational stories, and everyday wisdom. Of course, they’re usually full of excuses for self-flattery, falsified inspirational stories, and trite maxims. They hold out an ideal to you and give you plenty of things to read about that ideal, as well as courses to sign up for, clubs to join, and diets to try. Never you worry: there will always be more. Don’t worry too much about doing the work yourself, they say.
The left side of the checkout aisle is the path of titillation and conventional wisdom. All in all, even non-tabloid readers get to choose every day whether they’ll indulge in these perverse imaginings and flattering self-improvement fictions. The results of living in that world of the left side of the “checkout aisle” are less visible than the consequences of the wastefulness of the right side.
After enough time spent on perverse imaginings, speculations, jealousy, and exposes, something cracks in the human mind. The residents of this land are frequently cynical, small-minded, suspicious, and smutty in their aesthetic tastes.
Those who have been taken in by the equal but opposite forces of provincial, safe self-help wisdom and moralizing develop different problems. Their goodness – if they’re lucky enough to have it – is reactive, immature, and ungrounded. The ideas are unquestioningly adopted second-hand, and they are not ones tested and determined to be true on their own merits. At the first sign of a crack in a worldview, those who are normally taken in by well-intentioned but trite moralisms will be in great danger of joining the perverse imaginers of the tabloid side of this world.
The Third Way: Self-Checkout
Have you ever noticed how self-checkout aisles completely remove candy racks and tabloid racks? There’s no need for them. When you aren’t standing in line, fidgeting and fretting about something to do with your mental capacity, there’s simply no need for self-destructive options.
Self-checkout takes some degree of attention, awareness, and applied skill (even if it’s just swiping objects over a scanner). It is engaging in a way that waiting for someone else to scan your groceries just isn’t. You’re not insulated from the responsibility to work for at least this part of putting food in your family’s pantry.
You might say that self-checkout is the analogous third way for going through life. You don’t have to wait in line for a gatekeeper to approve your choices. You don’t have to give yourself the false choice of self-indulgence or second-hand thinking. You can take control of your experience and make it better.
The quote at the beginning of this blog post derives from a large number of Hebrew injunctions from various Biblical texts. This seems to have been a common theme for that wisdom tradition: don’t be distracted. Don’t turn aside. Keep your eyes ahead on your goal. For the grocery shopper, that of course is checking out. For the person going through life, that may be to achieve and keep integrity or truthfullnesss in all things.
If you aren’t normally lured in by the temptations of the typical grocery checkout aisle, you may walk away from this blog post feeling quite satisfied. You may think you’ve already escaped these two false paths away from your goals. Besides, this is a really odd analogy, and you no doubt have no struggles with these same problems that candy and cigarette and tabloid addicts have, right?
I would say you’re wrong. These false choices emerge everywhere and wait for an opportunity to manifest themselves. When they show up, you need to be ready to keep your eyes forward.