Last night I fell. I fell hard. It all happened as I was walking out of a spin class. It was a great class, and I was feeling good. I was sweaty, but not dripping, and I was tired, but I totally had my wits about me. The teacher was standing in the doorway high-fiving each of us as we walked out. It was taking a bit, to get out one by one, but we didn’t mind. I was really excited for my high-five! I love a good atta-girl, so I couldn’t wait for my turn. I got up to the front, got my high five, and took one step out the door. As I did my feet slipped out from under me and I went down. I went flying and landed sitting straight up with both legs stretched out in front of me.
First, before I delve into the rest of this, I must say thanks. I am so grateful that if I were to fall, and land in any way on concrete ground, that that was the way the universe had me fall. Shall I thank barre class for giving me the core strength to fall sitting up instead of letting my upper half of my body fly back so my head could hit the ground and crack open? Probably. Actually, definitely. I am very, very grateful that I didn’t get hurt.
I didn’t even really get emotionally hurt. I wasn’t embarrassed, truly. Ten years ago I would have prayed for the earth the swallow me whole. But now? Eh, it was mostly just awkward. Of all the things that have come with age, the increasingly decreasing list of things that embarrass me is the greatest gift.
Here is why this moment has caused me so much reflection: hardly anybody moved. I fell, and my friend Erin who was with me immediately responded. The girl who was working the front desk said “are you okay?” and the instructor gave me his hand to help me up. But no one else did. No one moved. No one reached toward me. No one exclaimed. No one asked if I was alright. I fell, and I mean I fell. It was obvious, and loud, and very, very public. And that didn’t elicit a response.
At the very least, I expected to hear a gasp. Even if it is just a gasp in horror at what an embarrassing and uncoordinated clutz the stranger in your spin class is. I didn’t even hear anyone laugh. At the time I probably would have had my feelings hurt if I had heard someone laugh, but seriously, at least then I would know that the people around me weren’t robots! Why, why, why, did no one react?
I ask this question, but of course I know the answer. Most people are just so wrapped up in themselves. People might have seen me fall, but the people who were out the door ahead of me were so focused on getting their keys out, checking their phone, getting to the next thing on their list. The people still in the room with me were mostly just inconvenienced by my fall. They couldn’t get out of the studio because I was sitting squarely in front of the door.
I say this, but it is so depressing that I can’t handle it. I thought about erasing that whole paragraph after typing it. I do think that it might be true for some people. If my fall didn’t affect them directly, other than turning their head at the sound, they probably just kept going. It was obvious that I was fine. I laughed out loud, and within about ten seconds I was up off the ground and moving along with my evening. But when a commotion happens, I still feel like a response should occur.
Perhaps this is some leftover reflex from teaching. I was constantly aware of what was going on with all of my kiddos, so it is impossible for me not to be thinking about the well-being of those around me. The thing is, and here is the crux of what is going on: we are being quietly taught by our society to not engage. There have been studies done on why men don’t open doors for women or pull out our chairs anymore. Many men express that they are afraid to offend us, that in being chivalrous they will somehow be anti-feminist. And while I think that 85% of the time this is a copout, I do think there is some validity to it. There are genuinely people out there that don’t want to be helped, and the fear of the visceral reaction from this small margin of people causes all of us to not engage with anybody we do not know.
I remember distinctly being in the bathroom at Will Rodgers World Airport when I was in grad school, and a woman came in crying. We made eye contact as I washed my hands and I gave her a slight smile. I didn’t know why she was crying or how she would react if I tried to help. I tried to go on with my day but I couldn’t. I couldn’t just let a woman stand in the bathroom crying alone. So I asked her gently if she was okay. Like a child she violently shook her head “no.” So I did the only thing I could: I asked her if I could give her a hug. She shook her head yes, still sobbing, and I stood there and held a complete stranger for a good thirty seconds. When I let her go, I tried to say something encouraging (Lord knows what it was!) as she took one big sniff and shook her head in agreement.
I think about that moment often when I am concerned that no one is responding. I am über sensitive to other people’s emotional states, and even I was concerned about engaging with someone. But I refuse to believe that we will let fear of a negative response cause us to never connect with others. The woman in the bathroom was obviously having a very very bad day. My fall though? That turned out to be something harmless – simply a funny anecdote for a blog post. My point is that we must engage with others whether it is an obviously tragic moment or someone simply trips. We are not cold and heartless. Isn’t that what people in Britain always tease Americans about? How emotional we are? Be emotional.
There is a very small university in Virginia that I visited when I was a consultant. They had what they call their “acknowledgement contract.” Whenever you pass someone on campus, you must smile, say hello, nod your head, etc. You must acknowledge those around you. I love this idea. I love that long before no one moved when I took a tumble, someone thought through the fact that we were getting too wrapped up in ourselves, and they had to make a rule to combat it.
Today, when you are walking down the street, try acknowledging those around you. If someone falls, ask if they are okay. If you see someone struggling, help them! When you see an arthritic old lady struggling to open her packet of Sweet n Low at Starbucks, ask her if you can help. And the thing is, people might not be warm to your engagement. But know that it is only because they are so surprised by it. What might happen if you do it five times, though? What might happen if we make this the norm?