If I were to rank my weekly chores in the order of how much joy it brings, grocery shopping would generally be near the bottom. But this has changed since I started going to the Aldi store a few blocks from church. I like the fact that they have good food at a great price, and it’s close to work and home. But what I have come to appreciate is that I regularly experience unexpected human interactions when I’m there.
Sometimes it’s simple things like letting someone with fewer items go ahead of you in line or celebrating a good find in the “random thing aisle.” Often it involves the sharing of a cart to save someone a little time and ease. Other times I see people give someone money to help cover the last ten bucks that someone’s SNAP card didn’t cover. I overhear someone with a cart full of milk sharing how it’s for their local food pantry.
There are more times than not that I leave the grocery store not only with some good food but a kind of amazement at human goodness. It turns out this sort of astonishment is a thing. Recently, a psychologist from UC Berkley named Dacher Keltner wrote a book about awe – which he describes as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.”
Keltner talks about various things that bring us awe. It’s obvious things, like nature and music, visual art and spiritual experiences. But in his study of hundreds of people across the world, Keltner found that there was one thing that brought people the most experiences of awe.
It wasn’t mountains, Mozart, or the Mona Lisa. It was other people’s kindness, resilience, fortitude, and generosity. Keltner found that people are most likely to feel awe when they are moved by what he calls, “moral beauty.” We most feel wonder in those moments when we see exceptional goodness in the words and actions of others. This is what most often astonishes people – catches us in this feeling of being part of something so much bigger than us.
When Jesus tells his friends to pay attention to that poor widow giving her two small coins to the temple that morning, perhaps it wasn’t just to learn from her about living a generous life. Maybe Jesus himself was astonished by her, in awe of her moral beauty. Maybe he wanted those disciples (and us) to see her with wonder and have that feeling of being caught up in transcendent goodness.
Moral beauty isn’t just in the folks who do extraordinary things that show up in the news and in books. It’s in the small things like that widow, and what I see all the time at our local Aldi. All those small actions are awesome. Literally. The power of these moments of moral beauty is not only that something good happens but witnessing it expands us. They remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We experience in our wonder how God’s way of goodness persists in this world, all the time, even at the grocery store.