Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kindness of Strangers?

Last Friday, as I waited to take the train downtown to the Christmas Market, I was feeling nervous and out of my element.  I was taking the train because I didn't want to deal with traffic, and I didn't want to pay $15 for parking.  I ended up leaving work later than planned, and because it was more convenient, I drove to a park and ride station that is closer to downtown. 

Most of the people waiting at that station did not look like me.  I was uncomfortable, anxious, in a hurry and a little on edge.  There was a group of teenagers five feet away acting loud and stupid - doing what teenagers do.  I was annoyed.

I stood there waiting, being irritated.  A woman came up to me and politely asked if this train would stop at her destination.  I am embarrassed to say that my annoyance became obvious.  I turned around and snapped, "I don't know." 

I saw the surprise on her face and realized what I had done. I tried to fix it.  I tried to laugh and tell her that I wasn't sure because it had been a long time since I'd been on the train.  I looked around for a map of the route, but didn't see one.  I told her that the train stopped at all of the stations downtown (which it did), so it would probably stop at hers.  I looked for the map, but I did not move from the spot where I was standing.  Most likely, if I had taken the time to walk three steps in either direction, I would have seen a map and we could have looked at it together and figured out the route she needed to take.  I couldn't be bothered.  The train came and I got on a different car - away from her and the obnoxious teenagers.

It's scary to get on a train when you don't know exactly where it's going.  I know that because I was in exactly the same position.  I had a good idea of where I was going, but I was not 100% sure - I had never been to my destination stop before.  That woman needed my help, was brave enough to ask for it, and I was so absorbed in my situation and my judgement of those around me that I couldn't be bothered to help her.  I am not proud.

20 minutes later, I got off the train at my stop.  It was a rather dimly lit, deserted underpass.  The building where I was going was a couple of blocks away.  I had to walk, and I was not positive which direction to go.  I was nervous and a little scared, but I started walking in what I hoped was the right direction.  There were very few people at the station.  I did not make eye contact with those I passed, and I tried to walk with purpose. 

I passed a group of 3 -4  hoodlums and heard some "hey, baby..." type of comment.  I walked faster.

As I rounded the corner, I saw two women who looked like me.  They were carrying bags that had the Christmas Market logo.  I felt certain I was heading in the right direction, but still wasn't sure which way to turn at the end of the block.  I spoke up and asked those two women, "Excuse me, are y'all coming from the Christmas Market?"  They both quit talking, looked down, and kept walking.

I said it again, louder, "Excuse me, are you coming from the Market?"  One of them glared at me and said, "I don't know. We're not from around here."  She obviously hadn't heard me.  I stopped walking and said, looking at their bags, "You're coming from the Christmas Market.  Which way is it?"  The woman did not stop walking, sighed and said vaguely waving her hand, "Go that way and take a right," and she turned away, dismissing me. 

I walked on and did find the building, but getting to that market was no longer my the focus of my journey that day.

Within 10 seconds of that encounter, I was no longer scared or anxious.  I was angry.  I felt somehow diminished - somehow less than - unworthy of kindness or acknowledgement. 

Within 30 seconds, I was humbled and embarrassed. I looked in the mirror and what I saw was not pretty. Not only had those women looked like me, they had behaved like me.

I wonder have we become so wary of strangers that we cannot lend a hand to those in need?  Are we so afraid of being taken advantage of that we have completely closed ourselves off and we're unwilling to show compassion to those brave enough to reach out and show their vulnerability?

Not being in the situation, it's easy to judge and say you would have responded kindly to that first woman.  But within the span of less than one hour, two women (one of them me) had responded in the same exceedingly ungracious manner.  What would you have done?

I've thought about these two scenarios quite a bit over the last several days.  I understood and was grateful for the lesson almost immediately, but I am still wondering if I have learned it.  Would I behave any differently now?  I hope that I would.