I

didn’t know where to find the notecards.

With the open season on school supplies officially over, all of the spiral notebooks and colored pencils had drifted from their temporary home in a designated corner of the store back into the relative anonymity of the office supply section. I paced in front of the shelves, stymied, when I heard a loud crash. Maybe it wasn’t as loud as it seemed, but in the 10 a.m., weekday quiet of the store, it sounded that way.

The noise was unmistakable, though: the sound of two shopping carts running into one another at speed.

I hurried to the end of the aisle to find a white-haired woman in her late 60s pushing her cart down the aisle with mine in front of it. Upon seeing me, she watched without malice as I unhooked the rear of my cart from hers.

“I’m sorry,” I told her unpleasantly, because I wasn’t, not even a little. “Was I in your way?”

“I was just trying to get through,” she said by way of explanation. She looked up past me as she spoke to the Promised Land for which she had travelled far and overcome myriad obstacles including my shopping cart—the aisle where the printer paper was located.

Ours is a bumper car culture. Mostly I find myself reluctant to name it as such because I fear that societal behaviors already on display will magically calcify somehow, becoming hard and inoperable, upon being diagnosed. I like to think that if I let my eyes slide over actions that appear inconsiderate or just ill-considered, that these lapses in courtesy will pass me by, unable to take on substantive form if they are ignored.

That’s ridiculous, of course, as anyone who watched my cart being pushed backward through a nearly empty big box store will tell you. We have become a people who will not go around, who will not take an extra half second to step over. And be advised that we will push you out of our way if it is ever your misfortune to stumble to a stop in front of our forward progress to whatever goal we have identified.

The hazard of decrying this culture of self-interest lies in the potential to become some kind of sour, overly watchful, judgmental crank—the opposite number to the old man yelling at kids to get off of his lawn. While I want to teach my children to be considerate of others, I don’t want them to begin watching for other’s slips and missteps through any world-weary example I might thoughtlessly set.

Our responsibility to others begins in managing our own behavior—not just by being respectful in our actions but in clearing away the prejudices and suspicion that can accumulate, leaving us irritable and anticipating offense. Then and only then can we hope to keep our shopping carts to ourselves.