The Island: A Longing to Be Real in a World of Inequality
A Sort-of Reflection on Superstore
Have I always wanted to be somebody different, or have I always wanted to close the gap that exists between our worlds? From early childhood, I immersed myself in the stories of people so different from me—historical biographies of George Washington Carver, Gladys Aylward, Ann Sullivan, and Helen Keller. People who lived long ago and ended up changing the world in both big and small ways. But my young mind would get stuck on the stories of suffering—on slavery, poverty, the lack of access to Bibles and education. When I was a child it seemed clear to me, why am I here, and not there? Why did I win the lottery of birth, the ideal life—white, middle class, safe and secure and fed—when so many didn’t?
This question remained in my mind as I grew and my life became entangled with various communities. I wanted to be a missionary, then an ESOL teacher, and then a community activist. I wanted to change the world for the better, make it more equitable. And sometimes, I wanted to be someone else. I wanted to pretend like I wasn’t born at the top of a hierarchy, I wanted to fit in with all my new neighbors—immigrants, refugees, and people from generational poverty in America. But I never, ever could, and I am only just now starting to realize that.Superstore is asking us to stop pretending like we are all the same.
A television show is helping with that realization. At first glance, Superstore is just another fast-paced comedy. It is a little bit like The Office—a show about co-workers, how they do and mostly don’t get along, the fight against monotonous days in the same environment. There is a goofy boss (sweetly evangelical, married to his high school sweetheart named Jerusha, foster parent to multiple children), the power-tripping socially awkward second-in-command, the straight woman (played by America Ferrera) who grimaces at all of the hijinks, and a cast of minor characters all with unique quirks and funny one-liners. The show is ostensibly about the life and times of the employees at a slightly-more-upscale Walmart-like big box store, and the season opens with the arrival of a new employee: Jonah, a business school dropout who is entirely too enthusiastic about his new job at the bottom of the wage scale.
We, the viewers, enter into the world of the store (called Cloud 9) through the eyes of Jonah. The show assumes a familiarity with places of commerce, without any real knowledge of the lives of the employees. As the show progresses, we get glimpses: Amy, the main female protagonist, got pregnant and then married at a very young age. She feels stuck at the store, but takes her management responsibilities seriously. There is another pregnant high-schooler and her deadbeat boyfriend. There is a Filipino immigrant, who later finds out he is undocumented. There are elderly greeters and depressed nerds. All of these people are stereotypes, to a point—the touches on sexuality, religion, and race are never as thoughtful as one would like—but in a world where blogs like “stuff I found at Walmart” is an invitation to both scoff and demean those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, Superstore shows us another way. It gently humanizes an issue that permeates our culture, without us ever fully acknowledging it. The show is asking us to consider what it means to live in a divided country like America. It is asking us to stop pretending like we are all the same.
Superstore is gentle in its unwinding of this idea. We, the viewers, laugh at the pharmacist and his uppity ways, how he thinks he is better than everyone at the store. We see the employees decide to strike and the underlying tensions of what might happen if they lose their jobs. We see the clashes between “corporate” and the people who actually work at the store. But nowhere is this theme so apparent as in the character of Jonah, the middle-class employee who treats his new job as if it were a gap year in a third-world country. This does not sit well with Amy, the only emotional and mental counterpoint to Jonah, who often finds herself feeling trapped by her job, her marriage, and her responsibilities as a mother and provider. During the second season, this tension comes to a head when Jonah’s former business school classmate comes to visit the store and reveals he now works for corporate. Jonah professes that he does not care to ever enter back into that world, and the stakes get raised in sitcom-like fashion until Amy calls his bluff and forces Jonah to call up his grad school and say that he will never be attending again.
Of course, Jonah falters (indeed, he finds out his grace period for re-enrollment has already ended, dashing the dream he had kept in his back pocket). Jonah knows that due to his background and privilege, he has many options ahead of him for the future. But still, for the sake of what—relationship? street cred?—Jonah continues to pretend like he is just the same as everyone else at Cloud 9. Just someone working for their paycheck, living their life. “I’m here just like everyone else,” he tells her. Amy does not agree. “You can leave if you want,” she tells him. “But I won’t,” he protests. “But you can,” Amy says, with a mixture of annoyance and jealousy. “And that’s the difference between being stranded on a desert island or going on a nice, tropical vacation.”
And therein lies the central tension. America is the land of the haves and the have nots. I know this, because I was raised in one part and now live in another. I am what is often described as a “missional” Christian. I am trying to live with intentionality, to be downwardly mobile, to seek Jesus in the communities he always said he would be found. I am a lot like Jonah from Superstore. Constantly trying to pretend like I fit in in my neighborhood, when it is so obvious that I don’t. I have a house and a car and white skin and the privilege it affords; my daughter doesn’t depend on the free breakfasts and lunches at school for her sustenance, I no longer have to work minimum wage jobs. And yet, I am here for a reason. I am here to experience another side of life that I was not often told to be curious about, and I love it. For me it does often feel like a visit to a nice, tropical location. But it is sobering for me to realize that for everyone else in my neighborhood, it is simply the island that they were stranded on, and they have very few hopes of ever making it off.
Superstore is sweet and silly and funny, and I can easily see how it could be seen as an exercise in extending empathy. But is that really what our world needs right now? Even as a child, I knew: being curious about lives different from my own wasn’t enough. I needed to be close to it—see it, smell it, experience it for myself in order for it to truly matter. I needed to go out into the world, pursue all the same people that my Jesus did—the poor, the sick, and the sad—to figure out who God was and what he was up to in our world.
And wouldn’t you know it, I found God at minimum-wage jobs. I found images of the invisible one in co-workers, friends, and neighbors who grew up so differently than me. I learned to check my impulse to fear, to demean, and to mock people in generational poverty (something which Superstore, the show, does very well). I learned how the America I live in is not the same America that exists for many others. I have been in proximity to people who are similar to those on Superstore—people for whom there will be no vacations apart from cigarette breaks, people who use all of their earnings to support countless relatives, people who are one bad break away from disaster at all times. And it is this proximity—not just disembodied empathy, the emotional equivalent of charity—that changed me and will end up changing us all.
I no longer try to pretend that I too have been stranded on the desert island of life. Although, like Jonah, I am tempted still to claim that the differences in our society are not real, nor consequential. But the truth is, they are. And I am learning that it is my relationships with people who are so different from me which has been the Holy Spirit in my life. What I’m learning will never let me be fully at peace in the world, not until justice rolls down like water, not until all of us are residing on the same level, the same island.
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