My Tesco Trolley Adventure

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today was a beautiful spring day, so I went out for a walk around Warwick. The university has some great scenic paths, and I like going for walks in nice weather. I was in such a splendid mood, I found myself humming Frank Sinatra. I’m not an ear buds guy, I like to listen to the world around me and hum my tunes.  As I was wandering about, enjoying myself, I stumbled upon a Tesco trolley. “Trolley” is the British word for “cart”. Tesco is a British supermarket chain. I’ve been at Warwick for three years, and in that time I have seen many Tesco trolleys in places they do not belong. People go to Tesco, they buy things, they take the trolleys back to the residence halls to carry the things home with them. But then, they do a curious thing. Instead of taking the time to bring the trolleys back to Tesco, they dump them in the wilderness. In the three years I’ve been at Warwick, I have many times noticed this, but I have never once done anything about it. Today was different.

Today I ran across this trolley sitting in the middle of an empty field. Here was this lovely scenic path, and smack in the middle of it, a shopping trolley. Instead of walking by and shaking my head, I went over to the trolley, grabbed it, and took it back to Tesco.

On the way back I kept asking myself a question, which I seek to answer in this post. Why on earth did I do this?

I certainly got nothing obvious out of it. I went off my intended path, out of this scenic area, over to a shopping complex, full of cars and noise and people. It wasn’t what I had planned. It’s not as if anyone noticed that I did this, or thanked me for it. Nor did I really have the expectation that anyone would. I couldn’t hear myself hum Frank Sinatra over the sound of the trolley’s wheels on the pavement. In many respects, taking that trolley back to Tesco made my walk less pleasant.

One of my friends is an altruist. She thinks we should act without regard for our self-interest. I differ with her on this–I think self-interest is inescapable. But for a moment here, I thought that perhaps I really had done something altruist. Maybe I acted altruistically? These trolleys can sit around for days. I bet the only way they ever get back to Tesco is when someone the university pays to keep an eye on the scenic areas takes them back. That person is likely paid for the trouble. Who knows how many students walk by these trolleys without doing anything? Maybe I’m just a nicer person than these other people.

But of course, that was the selfish reason, wasn’t it?

I wanted to feel like a better person than everyone else. I wanted to say to myself “all these other people just leave trolleys lying around and ignore them, they don’t care, but here you are, fighting against the chaos of the universe–you’re a great person”.

But why didn’t I have that attitude every other time I’d run across a trolley? Why was this time different?

Everything lined up just right:

  • The weather was nice–I wanted to be outside.
  • I was on a walk–I felt like walking.
  • The trolley was in a very obvious and unsightly place–I didn’t like the aesthetics of it.
  • I was in a very good mood.

Given that background, it really was not very impressive to grab that trolley. It was no achievement, nothing special. It wasn’t that far out of the way, the weather was nice, I was in a good mood, the right sort of mood for walking out a ways, and besides, I really didn’t like that trolley in that place. And of course, I wanted to feel proud and smug about myself. The whole way to Tesco and the whole way home, I’m walking by people and I notice myself thinking, “I’m such a great person, so much better than all these other people, I bet none of them would ever take a Tesco trolley home”.

What seemed altruist was in reality a deeply selfish, conceited, and arrogant act. My very writing of a blog post on the subject is proof of how selfish it was–I couldn’t help but tell my readership about the nice thing I did. And yet, it cannot be denied that I did do a good thing. The world is a slightly more orderly, slightly more aesthetically pleasing place with that trolley at Tesco and not in the middle of that field–not so much so that I deserve a medal, however. The improvement is extremely marginal. But in order for me to do it, I had to build it up in my head, as if I were going on some magnificent quest to do some fantastic deed.

Perversely, this is how good things happen. They come from twisted intentions, from self-aggrandisement, from otherwise extremely unappealing elements of our collective human nature. “Chaos of the universe”? It was just a trolley in a field. I didn’t bring a stable government to the Congo.

And yet, if I were not at heart such a conceited jerk, that trolley might still be in that field. The do-gooders of this world may be selfish or full of themselves, but I wouldn’t have them any other way. But of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I am, at least today, one of them, and we human beings are nothing if not good rationalisers.