Rules of Engagement

Yesterday, I did two things that scared me, and surprised me. Both happened spontaneously, arising out of situations that I could have chosen to walk by. Instead, I engaged.

First story: I was pushing the stroller (uphill, through heavy snow on sidewalks that hadn’t been cleared), which possibly put me into a grumpy mood. I entered a crosswalk, at a four-way stop where my kids have to cross every morning on their way to school. While I was crossing, a car pulled up at the stop sign behind me, and turned left, into the street that I was crossing. He was in such a hurry that he didn’t wait for me to cross the street to the sidewalk–worse, he didn’t even wait for me to cross half of the street. His car brushed right behind me, near enough to touch, on his way to somewhere very important. I was surprised and annoyed. And then I saw that we were headed in the same direction. And then I saw him pull into his driveway. And then I pushed the stroller faster. 
“Why are you running, Mommy?” 
“I think,” I said, “I think I’m going to tell this man that I thought he was driving carelessly.” 
The man went into his house, leaving his car running (fancy car, fancy house, well-dressed sixtyish man), and by the time he came back out and got into his car, he’d seen me coming. I walked up the driveway and he rolled down his window. I said that I felt his turn had been unsafe, given that I was still in the crosswalk when he turned. He responded with anger, defensively: “You were never in any danger. I was not driving dangerously.” I asked him if he knew that a child had recently been hit by a car in our neighbourhood. He said: “What? By me?” I said, of course not, but likely by someone in a hurry and driving carelessly. He pulled out of his driveway, but his window was still down. I knew I hadn’t gotten at the crux of what I wanted to say, so I called after him: “Please, ask yourself, why are you in such a hurry that you can’t spare a few seconds to let a mother cross the street with her stroller safely?” The thought left my mouth almost exactly as coherently as I’ve written it down. He heard me. I don’t know what he thought. But it looked like his expression changed fractionally. Maybe he was thinking about what I’d asked.
In thinking it over, I wish I could have phrased my question a little bit differently. I really just wanted to say: Slow down, please! Be careful! You could hurt someone. His stance was: I knew you were perfectly safe, so it’s a judgement call, mine to make. And it’s true, when you get into a car, you make judgement calls all the time. I made a judgement call just the other day, when driving the kids home from piano lessons: I turned left even though a pedestrian had stepped into the crosswalk, because I was in a hurry, and I knew I wasn’t close to her. But I shouldn’t have, and even while I was doing it, regretted that I was making that choice. What if another left-turning vehicle had followed me blindly? Had that pedestrian been able to follow and question me for my choice, I would have felt awful–very much in the wrong, and very apologetic.
This man didn’t feel either of those things. But you know, I’m glad that I ran after him. It’s pretty rare that the opportunity arises, given that cars are usually speeding off to parts unknown. I’m still in awe that I was brave enough to talk to him. (I hate to use the word confront … it sounds so confrontational …). I was definitely upset by the interaction, and wished I could have felt calmer on the inside during our conversation (though I tried to appear calm on the outside). It took me awhile afterward to shake off the nervous energy. Let’s just say that conflict of any sort does not come naturally to me. And I don’t think conflict is necessarily a bad thing: we can’t always agree. But it’s a hard thing to learn: how to disagree respectfully, to discuss, to listen, to go to uncomfortable places, to find resolution, to compromise, to be challenged, to be willing to change. I’m trying. Having firm boundaries within one’s own self (to thine own self be true!) is the first step. The next is being willing to go to places of discomfort.
Story two: On my way to yoga class, I saw a child-sized person who looked lost. As I drew nearer, I saw that he was a small adult, developmentally challenged. He still looked lost. His coat was open, he had no mitts, he was wearing a backpack, and dragging another … and I couldn’t pass him by. But I was afraid, because I didn’t know him, and because it was dark, and because he was standing in a poorly lit spot where there weren’t other people around. I spoke to him, but tentatively, and he didn’t answer, but he started to follow me, which was good, because I was headed toward the parking lot which had light and people. I asked him again–“Are you lost?”–and he said, no, and told me where he wanted to go. I pointed the direction (he’d been going the wrong way). He thanked me. I said, it’s cold, you should zip up your coat. He smiled and showed me that he was wearing several layers of coats. I asked him to please be careful crossing the street. He thanked me and promised he would, and he walked on his way … maybe home? Maybe? I don’t know. I went inside the warm yoga studio, down to the changeroom, and started to cry. I was questioning myself: had I done the right thing? Did he really know where he was going? Even if he knew, was he going to be okay? If I were going to call someone for help, who would it have been? When we spoke to each other, he seemed calm and happy, almost content, very child-like and innocent, and terribly vulnerable … though, who knows, maybe I’m projecting my own sappy middleclass ideas.
Truthfully, I felt heartbroken by the situation. He seemed to embody the lost people of this world … whom I don’t want to pass by, but don’t know how to help.
A word came to me, and I reflected on it during class. Engage. How do I engage with the people I meet? With the situations that present themselves? With friends, with family, with issues that concern me? Am I strong enough, now, in spirit, to consider opening myself to more engagement–more risk? Because it’s risky to engage. There are so many potential pitfalls: there is over-engagement, and taking responsibility for problems that aren’t mine to solve; there’s the risk of pissing people off, and saying unpopular things, and not being liked (and I’ve gotta say, I really prefer to be liked); there is more potential for conflict, for saying the wrong thing, for error; and there’s the huge risk of being judgemental and self-righteous. And of course there are times when disengagement is the better choice. Am I wise enough to know?
Ugh. 
This reflection is unfinished, in progress. What would you have done, in either of these situations? What would you want to do?
The Small Stuff
Roll-Out Sugar Cookies

5 Comments

  1. Carrie,

    I am so impressed that you spoke to the man in the car. Those kinds of things happen to me so often when I am out and I always wish I had said something. Instead, I end up seething about it and complaining to Jeff. Good for you!

    I also think you did the right thing with the other man. I don’t really know what else you could have done.

    Good for you!

    T

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  2. I’m really glad you had the guts and the words to speak to the man who drove as he did. And to do so in front of your kids. I haven’t done this before, but after our old neighbours (old house) had Ultimate Fighting in the backyard at 12:30 am, I went over the next day to talk to them because I genuinely wanted them to see a real person who was affected by their actions.

    As for the other man, oh that is such a hard situation. I’m with you – I don’t know if you did enough or not. There are no reports of missing people right now, I don’t think, so presumably he is fine. But there are no hard and fast rules around this. I think ultimately you have to trust your gut. If you had thought he was in danger, your Spidey Sense would have told you to stay or to call the police. It’s his vulnerability, though, that speaks to you, I imagine.

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  3. Good for you for approaching both men.

    The first one needed to be approached for the safety of all. I think there are times we need to confront, be confrontational, and there are ways to do it without being rude or abrasive and it sounds like you handled yourself and the situation with grace and respect.

    The second one needed to be approached for his own safety. I agree that you have to go with your gut. It’s hard in a situation like this when you don’t want to be condescending or ablist, but again, it sounds like you handled the situation perfectly.

    About a year ago I was in a grocery store and walked by a family–two parents and two teen age boys. I was pushing my stroller, with both of my boys inside. One of the teens said, “this store is full of f*cking ch*nks” just as I walked by. All my hair stood on end. I was shocked. So I turned around and went down the aisle I just left and the family was in. I approached the boy and said, “Excuse me, what did you say.” He said, “Nothing.” And I said, “I heard what you said. You should be ashamed of yourself. What you said was disgusting. Terrible. I hope you never say that again.” The whole family looked at me in complete ashen shock. I turned around and left, my whole body shaking. I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. But I’m still glad I did it, at the very least as an example to my boys to stand up when things aren’t right. I think you did the same with the first man. It’s hard to do, but it’s a big, big statement.

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  4. Susan–yes, I think fundamentally what troubled me most about the second situation was the vulnerability of that young man. I believed he did know where he was going, I just didn’t believe that he was, in general, safe. He seemed so unprotected in the world.

    Marita, thank you for your story of standing up to that teenager. I am so impressed that you were brave enough to do it. I’m also glad to hear that I’m not alone in being upset by those situations–I was also very shaky after talking to the man in his car. I felt like I shouldn’t be, like I should have been calm and composed, but i wasn’t. I guess extraordinary situations call for engagement, no matter how hard it is to do. Maybe it gets easier? Or maybe it doesn’t.

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  5. In terms of physical reaction, I ended up accidentally in an argument with another soccer mother this past summer. I opted to walk away rather than respond to her, and I felt physically ill in doing so. (She had overheard a comment I made to my husband and began yelling at me. I said I was having a private conversation and she said it was a public place and she had every right to correct me. That’s when I walked. And when I realized how horrible it is to feel bullied, even in a one-time situation.)

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