There is really nothing like going to Target on lunch break two days before Christmas to make me ponder the meaning of charity. Not the “give an extra dollar to fight heart disease” charity that you associate with shopping, or the guilt-trippy “So This Is Christmas” Save the Children ads you associate with impending holidays. I should be clear that I absolutely believe in that kind of charity — though I don’t always take part as much as I mean to — but here I’m going for the more basic St. Paul in First Corinthians, “Charity suffereth long and is kind” variety. (Modern translations tend to render this as “Love is patient, love is kind,” which is a perfectly reasonable translation, but for a complicated set of reasons including the profound amount of Shakespeare-damage I’ve acquired over the years, I tend to default to King James English. Anyway.)

My interpretation of what St. Paul means here, applied to the situation at hand, is something like, “Give thy fellow humans a break,” or, “Thou shalt not be like unto an asshole.” This is exactly the thing that the Christmas season is supposed to put us in mind of, while in fact, it tends to the opposite, by giving us mandates like, “Drive over roads that stilll have snow on them through the busiest traffic in town, to the busiest store in town, acquire the things for your loved ones that they most desire, and get back to the office in less than an hour. And while you’re out, get something to eat, so you don’t spend the whole afternoon stuffing your face with the cookies in the break room.”

This was my battle plan for the lunch hour and it went — well, not that badly, really. I got to the store without incident, in spite of the woman behind me who was both talking on her cell phone and gesticulating the whole time — how did she steer the car without touching the wheel? a Christmas miracle! — found enough of the things I needed that I decided I don’t have to go back to Target again until January, and decided I even had time to buy a personal pan pizza on the way out. (I also decided to convince myself this was in anyway a more health-conscious choice than the breakroom-cookies-all-afternoon strategy). So I found myself in line behind a man with several shopping bags, and three children between the ages of maybe five and nine.

Here’s what he was doing: ordering pizza and drinks for his kids. Here’s what his kids were doing: behaving perfectly nicely. Here’s what I was doing: (on the outside) behaving perfectly nicely (on the inside) oh my God, oh my God, he is taking so damn long when I am standing here and doesn’t he know I have to go back to work if that cashier doesn’t count that change out soon I will send a sarcastic Twitter about it oh my God I bet this never happens to Wolverine I deserve a medal for NOT screaming at these people.

Here’s how long the whole thing took: about five minutes. Here’s what I did next: went out into the parking lot, and spent significantly longer than that trying to remember where I parked my car. In the continuum of moral victories, then, my experiences can be weighed this way. Positive: didn’t scream at the kid-pizza guy, am not still huddled in a fetal position in the parking lot as an admission of defeat. Negative: spent a significant amount of my Christmas shopping experience wishing ill on another human being because he was not yelling at his kids to hurry up already. In the end, it’s a net win for the Christmas spirit (when I see my brother tonight, I’ll be able to give him his Christmas present, early), but Jesus and I know: I have been an asshole, today, in my heart.

I don’t identify myself as a Christian — I don’t have a great understanding of Christian theology (I learned my Bible via Mormonism, which is in some ways just any Bible-based faith and in some really not, and in any case, I haven’t considered myself part of that since I was a teenager), and what I know I have some problems with. But there are some basic moral principles in the New Testament that still mean a lot to me: it matters what your actions do to other people, and it also matters what your thoughts do to yourself. It’s not even that doing the right thing for the wrong reason is insufficient; it’s that as far as our spiritual growth goes, it’s not even the right thing.

And that all has to do with why I spent my afternoon in the Target parking lot, thinking of Reinhold Neibuhr’s serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Next time I’ll have to spend a little less of my mental energy raging about traffic and snow and the nerve of other people to be standing in front of me, and a little bit more remembering where I parked the car. If I’d taken the right kind of care over the things I could control (like, not expecting time and space and Broad Street to change course so I could get some shopping done), I wouldn’t have needed to blame other people for making me late.

I don’t mean to say any of these ideas are unique to Christianity, of course. It’s just that this particular filter helped me make sense of what I was feeling this afternoon. Getting lost in the parking lot, though, that was clearly karma catching up with me.

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