I am not a hunter. I’m a gatherer.
In several discussions recently, I considered the importance of a purpose-driven life. Purpose energizes the young, offers meaning to the old, and for those somewhere in between, it keeps one’s life from getting out of hand and becoming downright crazy. If I asked someone at any time of day what they were doing and they were indeed behaving purposefully, they might answer confidently that they knew what they are doing. It’s great to feeling we know what we’re doing. As a gatherer, I once thought I knew. A few days ago, my confidence wavered.
I had mixed feelings about the day we went shopping. We knew what we were doing well enough, but the trip had disturbing side effects for me.
The coronavirus has taken the carefree quality out of all our comings and goings. We now have to plan meticulously, be intentional in our actions, not the least of which is to measure the distance between the people we may possibly encounter. I would wager that most of us by now know how to eyeball what a 6-foot distance measures with the acuity of a finely designed rangefinder. We have now been conditioned to respond reflexively to anyone who comes too near us, like the electronic sensors in modern cars that beep and flash as they warn us that the car next to us is too close.
Free and easy social interactions, sadly, are history. Our movements must now be purposefully monitored to minimize being infected or infecting others with COVID-19.
This makes me very self-conscious.
Just wearing masks is bound to make anybody self-conscious, unless you happen to be a professional bank robber for whom the mask is a tool. There was a time when a sortie to the supermarket felt liberating after being homebound all day. Stopping and chatting with neighbors and the cashiers at the checkout was part of the ritual. These days, the once simple shopping trip imposes burdens on me that I don’t believe are appropriate to a true gatherer.
My wife and I went to Graul’s yesterday. I felt as though I was donning a spacesuit preparing for a trip to Mars. First the mask had to be put on, then rubber gloves and finally gearing up to observe split second timing to arrive at the store early just when it’s been freshly sanitized and there are few people.
We thought it best to maximize efficiency by minimizing our efforts and being studiously purposeful while engaged in shopping. I must qualify that by saying my wife thought it was best to maximize our efficiency by minimizing our efforts. To that end, my wife, Jo, prepared two separate lists; one for me and one for her. Jo is, by character, particularly well-organized so that each list was carefully contrived to take into account our personality quirks.
I have trouble staying focused. She formulated my list such that it would require me to locate only two sections at Graul’s; where the veggies were binned and where the dairy products are cooled. Each was easy to find and all in one place. Jo’s list contained more diverse items like canned goods, food in jars, cooking and baking aids, all of which demand negotiating several aisles to chase them down. What with my unruly attention span, leaving such a task to me would require half the day for me to find everything listed.
You can now see that each list was purposefully designed to be user-friendly for the personality of the one in whose hands the list was placed.
Jo is focused. She will always draw a straight line between two points where, given the same task, my eyes will wander restlessly, and I’ll make excursions this way and that. I’m not able help myself, but to stop and examine whatever happens to catch my eye, the way dogs cannot but sniff the minutiae of the landscape they are walking. The danger in my case is that I might easily forget what I was looking for in the first place.
The overall strategy that day was to get us in and out of Graul’s with all possible speed, without providing me any opportunity for pawing over or lingering aimlessly amidst the myriad of stocks sitting on the shelves.
I have to say that from the point of view of how this shopping trip was planned and executed and in view of the desired goals, it was a rip-snorting success. Upon leaving the house at 7am, parking the car at Graul’s, going in, shopping, getting all the groceries, delivering them to the car and driving home, we were back at the house at 7:45am sharp. To my knowledge this has to be totally unprecedented in our mutual gathering history. It is due entirely to Jo’s genius in devising a strategy that’s personality-friendly and her knowledge of the supermarket’s layout.
However, with all due respect to the effort, I confess I didn’t have much fun doing it. For me it felt like ‘shopping-interruptus;’ a task far too speedily consummated, an exercise that I would have preferred executed with more leisure.
Isn’t the heart of shopping as much inspecting and caressing the goods as buying them? Isn’t it just picking up stuff with no intention of purchasing it, pleasing? Isn’t the fun just inspecting the different packaging, even perusing the fine print on cans and bottles? The shopping adventure includes engaging in those fleeting fantasies that novel packaging may conjure up in our minds or messing with the screw tops of Eggbeaters (they are impossible tops to manage) to see if they have been improved? On two occasions I have mentioned this design flaw to the manager.
I fear that that this brave new world is asking me to surrender my way of life as a gatherer, and to become a hunter. Hunters calculate every move. They are furtive and instead of masks, wear camouflaged clothing, hiding their identity. They keep distance from others while they hunt and never for a moment let their minds stray from the prey they seek.
I am not suited to be a hunter. I am not that single minded and purposeful. I will always be a gatherer at heart and continue (as domestic circumstances allow) to wander aimlessly across life’s verdant field –– and the supermarket’s shelves –– not always sure of what I’m looking for but confident that I will know when I see it.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.