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On salad dressing and philosophy - Justin Reedy

The epiphany didn't hit me while I was standing on the condiment aisle in Kroger the other night.

Nope, it was much later that night, well after Anthony and I had come back from our obligatory grocery store run for the evening, eaten dinner, watched the Braves game, made our (also obligatory) trip to Wal-Mart and run his car through the gas station car wash.

Anthony and his sparkling wheel covers had departed for the friendly climes of DeKalb County, and I was talking on the phone with Heather, another friend of mine n that's when it hit me.

She was talking about the thousands of people who post online journals to this Web site she had seen, and how that impressed on her that there are countless other people the world over, living their lives while oblivious to ours.

For some reason, that made me think of that trip to Kroger that Anthony and I had made earlier in the evening. He just got back from Savannah, you see, where he had sampled a new kind of salad dressing n Parmesan peppercorn n and hoped to find a version of that in the grocery store. (When, like the two of us, you're on a high-protein diet that doesn't allow sugar, starch and other carbohydrates, you tend to get excited about strange things with respect to food. How else can you explain two grown men becoming giddy over a sale on sausage? Never mind, don't answer that.)

So there we were, scanning the thousands of bottles of salad dressing stocked by the Kroger, hoping to catch a glimpse of Parmesan peppercorn dressing or something like it. As we stood there, our attention rapt on those tiny glass bottles and their colorful labels, I noticed that another man and two women had likewise stopped to peruse the salad cream section.

And, like us, they stood quietly, intent on finding their particular flavor among the God-knows-how-many varieties found in the store. After a long period of silence shared by the five of us, I broke the ice with a joke (as I am wont to do).

"Jeez," I blurted, "I've never seen so many people looking at the salad dressing at the same time before."

That elicited a few smiles from my fellow shoppers, but one of the women, hopefully having recognized that the situation was absurdly inane and suburbanite, actually laughed out loud. Pleased with the fact that I could cheer someone up, if only for just a moment, we went about our business and finished shopping. (We wound up buying Parmesan Romano dressing and adding fresh ground pepper at home, in case you were wondering. It was tasty.)

The significance of the moment was lost on me until later, when I was thinking about Heather's comments regarding the millions of separate lives led by the people on this planet, and how we never think about the problems they go through and the triumphs they savor, which are no doubt much like our own. That's when it hit me that, even though the vast majority of lives never intersect, sometimes just the smallest interaction between lives can have a dramatic impact.

In the field of science, such a concept is addressed by chaos theory, which asserts (in part) that tiny, imperceptible changes in a system can, over many permutations or long periods of time, cause wildly different final results from seemingly identical starting conditions. (That's popularized by the concept of the Butterfly Effect n a winged insect flapping its wings in Japan causes a thunderstorm in New York the following week.)

Maybe, like that tiny butterfly, we can drastically affect the lives of complete strangers and not even realize it. What if, because I made that woman laugh for a moment, making her feel a little more carefree right then, I changed the whole face of her evening.

Maybe she went home to her family, and instead of getting into an argument with her spouse over something she forgot at the store, or becoming angry with one of her children because they didn't load the dishwasher, she simply greeted them with a smile and a hug, let the problems go for one night and just enjoyed their company. Perhaps some of that good feeling spilled over into her job, which she once again started to excel at, and her social life, where she rejuvenated friendships she had started to neglect.

Obviously, I wouldn't be presumptive enough to think that my one attempt at grocery store humor necessarily changed this stranger's life. But it's a valid (albeit hypothetical) example of how tiny interactions between people, even complete strangers, can alter the course of their lives. (Ever wonder if that telephone call you get as you're walking out the door that makes you 30 seconds late keeps you from getting broad-sided as you pull out onto the highway?)

The wonder (and frustration) of such an outlook on life is that most of the time, we'll never know what impact we have on other people.

Maybe I helped steer that woman down the right track by making her laugh, or maybe she was the one who changed my life by making me feel good that I had cheered up another person.

Of course, maybe the joke and subsequent laugh didn't result in anything at all, just the experiential value of the event itself. Yeah, that's probably it.

Justin Reedy covers county government for the News Daily. His column appears on Thursdays. He may be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 281 or via e-mail at jreedy@news-daily.com.