I work at the local grocery store, and one time, I was facing the shelves in Aisle 15. While I was minding my own business and organizing items, a customer approached me and kindly asked where the prunes were. Prunes, I thought, were located in the produce section—they’re a fruit after all. It turned out that at my store, prunes are only sold in the form of a can, and that they were actually located in Aisle 9, the baking aisle. Of course, I erroneously instructed the customer to search for them in the produce department, but to my dismay, the hostess was working next to me and therefore overheard my misleading feedback.
In case you’re wondering, the hostess’s job is direct customers to the items that they cannot find, so you can probably imagine how frustrated she was with this pathetic cashier’s uninformed, uneducated guidance on the whereabouts of prunes. She corrected my mistake by ushering the customer to Aisle 9, and then returned to Aisle 15 to scold me.
“These people pay our salaries,” the hostess angrily exclaimed. “If you constantly direct them to the wrong locations, they’ll get fed up and WE’LL lose business.”
Little did she realize that at the end of the day, I am just a cashier and thus not expected by my managers to know the locations of every conceivable item in the store. But I’m a man of principle in that when I’m asked a question—any question—I try to give the best answer possible to it, regardless if I’m right or wrong. That was how I was taught. I protested to the hostess that if I relinquish my competence by constantly relying on others to answer questions that were originally asked TO me, then I’ll be perceived as weak. When she continued to poke that bee hive, I naturally reacted with agitation.
“Okay, SORRY” I said with a snide tone, turning my head away and continuing to organize the items. For the next ten seconds, neither of us would say a thing. The hostess, dumbfounded by my defiance, asked what my name was in order to report me to a manager, but before she could leave the aisle, I promptly apologized to her. “I apologize for my tone-of-voice. I’ve had a long day and took my frustration out on you. I didn’t mean to.”
That was over a year ago, but I’ve routinely thought about the ways in which I could’ve better handled the encounter. Perhaps I should’ve set aside my pride, and allowed the hostess to answer the customer’s question all along. Maybe I should’ve been a little sterner when she scolded me, or maybe I should’ve just known where the damned prunes were.
Interestingly, five days ago, I’m working the register and a different customer approaches me to ask about where to find the prunes. “Aisle 9,” I told him.
I told this story because it is a glimpse into what self-redemption could look like. We’ve all made thousands of mistakes that we wish we could take back. Due to the nature of time and how it works, we can’t undo or rescind them, but we can register and put them to work.
Let’s say, for example, that I was never approached by that fateful customer. Big deal. I could’ve done my job in peace and circumvented an uncomfortable conversation with a pesky coworker. Five days ago, however, the outcome would’ve been the same as the incident that occurred over a year ago, but with one key difference: I would’ve erroneously directed the customer to the produce department, and never learned about the location of prunes, thereby setting myself up to repeat the same mistake as before.
In a world outside a grocery store, we might fail at relationships, fail at new jobs, and fail exams, but that doesn’t always mean that we’ve failed as people. Through applying this knowledge to navigating interpersonal relationships, learning a novel career position, and taking an important exam, we begin to realize that each of our mistakes, lamentable as they may be, are stepping stones toward achieving a more favorable outcome the next time an opportunity presents itself. That is the precise definition of self-redemption, because to achieve it, you must endure profound failures and hardships but take away from them the wisdom to know that you’ve done a poor job, and that you hope to do better the next time.
Now go and find those prunes.