Everyday Words


March 29, 2011

Years ago I lived in Seattle and one day happened to be in one of the tall office towers downtown. The kind that had restaurants, shops and thousands of people. I went into one of the restrooms during lunch and there was a line of women waiting to use the stalls. But there was also one woman, laying on the ground in the corner, crying. She wasn’t homeless, she wasn’t crazy, she wasn’t dishevelled or seemingly dangerous but something was obviously wrong. However everyone in that washroom pretended otherwise.

Except me.

I went over to her asked her her name and what was wrong. Between muffled sobs she told me and that she needed her friends who were eating nearby in a restaurant. I told her I’d go and find them and then looked around at the other women in the restroom and asked if anyone could stay with her while I went and looked for her friends. Half the women ignored me and the other half just looked at me dazed, like they wanted to help but they didn’t want to get involved. I yelled at them, “what if this was you? Wouldn’t you want someone to help you? To comfort you?”

I couldn’t find a volunteer. Not one.

At the restaurant I began looking for two women lunching and calling out the names I had until I found the two. As they followed me to the washroom they talked to each other. “Oh my god,” I heard one say, “she’s been gone for 20minutes. All this time something’s been wrong!”

Twenty minutes how many people came in and out, saw her, and walked away. Twenty minutes that woman was hurting – alone, scared, embarassed, shamed. Twenty minutes was less than it took me to talk to her, find her friends and help her.

I often wonder if I hadn’t been there at that time, what would have happened to her? What did happen to her? Thinking about that and thinking about that situation, well, simple stated it makes me sad.

There are so many stories from people I’ve heard who have been in similar situations; recently a friend confided that she was choking in a violent, scary way yet the people around her – people she had known for years – passively sat by. When she finally regained herself, not one person asked if she was ok. Not one. How is she supposed to feel anything but sadness, loneliness, mistrust and disconnect from people with whom she should feel otherwise?

I’ve seen a woman in a bad neighbourhood in Philadelphia getting beaten up by a guy twice my size. And I got out of my car across the street and started yelling “IM CALLING THE POLICE. LEAVE HER ALONE IM CALLING THE POLICE” until he realised I really was, left her and ran off. Then I went and helped her until the police came. When people heard what I’d done, they asked how I could have gotten involved, wasn’t I scared? To which I always reply, “How could I not? I’d be more scared to read that she’d died because I chose to walk away.” I knew I couldn’t stop the fight but I had a phone and a voice. I used both. I did what I could do. We always should.

We talk all the time of how connected we now all are. Connected to what, I ask? Connected to Facebook updates but not the people beside us? To Twitter status updates of celebrities, ‘influencers’, hustlers but not updating our neighbour next door? Of texting money donations to causes around the world but leaving our friends and community members who are in need, alone and without?

Recently I was at SXSW Interactive; a yearly conference that is aimed at bringing people together to share ideas, to network and to support each other in panels, in hallways, at parties. In 2002 when I first went, I remember interacting people in really meaningful ways; long conversations in the hallways, uninterrupted listening during panels, exchanging great ideas over impromptu drinks. Those people I met then became life-changing friends that I still have, still inspire, and still connect with. This year, however, was different.

Most people who attended literally interacted with their friends on social sites via their phones. Everyone was texting; sharing with strangers on Twitter what was going on but unable to ask someone sitting next to them their name. I saw those ‘social gurus’ who all the time talk about online communities, social networking, and connecting to people. Yet I saw those same social gurus stand in a room of 100 people, unable to connect with one person and more often than not, stand in a corner, checking their phone for their online community updates. I saw people pass each other by without even looking up from their devices, or entering parties to scan for cool kids instead of thinking the person that would really make the difference was right in front.And honestly, it was really hard to deal with.

Because here’s the thing: I am quite shy when I’m alone. I’m not naturally gregarious and a people seeker. I don’t go out feeling brave and fearless all the time, especially in crowds or in new places. But if I see someone needing help – whether it’s a friend needing to move furniture, a person who fell on the street or someone just needing to brainstorm an idea – I help.

I understand the fear and hesitation people can have with strangers but I don’t understand that with friends, coworkers, family. How can we not help one another? Whether it’s calling 911 or providing a shoulder to cry on, or simply saying, “I’m here to listen, what do you need.” This disconnect we’re all facing is something we’re doing to ourselves and each other. We have more intamacy with a keyboard and feel more useful by sending money to charities via a computer than helping a friend right beside us.

What is the solution? I’m sure I don’t know although I know it’s not in everyone becoming Mother Theresa or giving up Facebook. I think a little part of the answer is to just to simply remember and practice compassion and humanness. To pay attention to each other – strangers, friends, family. To do the right thing when we can. To help someone is to involve yourself in their problem and sometimes that’s as simply as lending an ear – even for just 5 minutes. Sometimes people just need to be heard, to feel safe and to feel like they’re not alone. Because oddly enough, that’s a lot of people’s concerns: loneliness and being disconnected.

But the simple act of reaching out a hand to someone else turns you both into something connected. And perhaps that’s the waterdrop that the waterfall needed to begin with.