Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Action vs inaction

Two anecdotes.

1. Late last week I was at the gym, swimming laps. While I was resting in-between sets I overheard a man in the hot tub say to the other men in the hot tub, "Hey! I've got a rabbi joke for you!" It was a variant of this joke or this one, only he clearly had no idea how Judaism works, because he ended the joke with the Rabbi talking to St. Peter at the pearly gates.

I began to fume, but decided to be polite and swim a few more laps to cool down. When I finished and was again resting, the guy said to a few new arrivals in the hot tub, "Hey, I've got a rabbi joke!" and told it again. I looked at the other men in the hot tub. Some were laughing (it is a funny joke) while others looked put off.

This is a gym with a multicultural population. Black and white people, asian people, latino people, middle eastern people and many different faiths. It's in a neighborhood that at one time had 4, count 'em, 4 synagogues. I bet he wouldn't have told jokes about women while I was there. Who knows what religion those other men were? We don't have to wear stars anymore.

I had enough. When I got out of the pool I sat in the hot tub for awhile (things got quiet once I settled in, I think having a woman there changed the dynamic) then, before I left I approached the jokester and quietly said, "Two things. It's a good joke. I've heard it with a minister, rabbi, iman and Jerry Falwell. And just so you know? Jews don't meet St. Peter at the pearly gates. We have an an express line." I walked away without looking back.

2. A couple of days later I was at an amusement park with my sweetie and a friend. At the house of mirrors we saw a little girl crying her head off. At first I thought she'd just gotten scared, but upon looking again I saw she was bleeding. A lot. She had clearly been running inside the maze and slammed into a wall. Blood was pouring out of her nose, was all over her hand and her shirt.

Her parents were no where around. There were two slightly older girls with her who looked as though they were about to burst into tears; they clearly didn't know what to do.

The amusement park attendant was just standing there. Other adults nearby were watching. No one was doing anything to help this screaming kid who kept trying using her bare hands to try to stop her nose from bleeding.

I asked my sweetheart for tissues (he always has some) and gave them to her. She knew exactly what to do, this clearly wasn't her first nose bleed. I told her she was going to be fine, told the two girls (her cousins, as it turned out) to call her parents. They said they tried but no one answered. I suggested they try again and sent our friend to get water so we could wash off the girl's hand, as she was clearly upset by seeing the blood on her palm.

She calmed down. The cousins calmed down. The other unrelated adults stood and watched or wandered away. A park EMT finally showed up and helped her just as her mother arrived, so we left. There was nothing else to do other than find a bathroom, wash my hands and enjoy the rest of the day. Which we did.

* * *

In neither of these cases was I being heroic nor doing anything that I consider out of the ordinary. I was acting in situations where I believe action is warranted. And that's what I ultimately find upsetting - I wasn't the first person there, it's likely I wasn't the first person to be distressed by what was happening, yet I was the first person to do anything.

It doesn't take much in the way of courage to act in these small ways. You can safely and easily make a difference in the world by quietly letting a bigot know it's not okay (ever hear of Stetson Kennedy and frown power? He is one of my heroes) or offering comfort to a child.

When we stand up in a civilized manner for what we believe is right, when we intervene to help the weak, we are making an impacting in that moment and modeling behavior that may inspire others to stand up for what they believe in. The current tone of incivility in American discourse serves only to make me more determined to act with kindness and integrity when I have the opportunity.

I don't know if the man who told the joke at the pool learned anything or will tell that joke again. I do know that I could have embarrassed him by chastising him loudly or embarrassed myself by yelling. I hope he will consider where he is and who might be listening before he tells it again.

I don't know if the park personnel will consider trying to comfort the next screaming child, at least offering her a napkin so she isn't covered in blood, nor do I know if other adults might consider being kind to children other than their own. I do know in that moment she needed someone to tell her she would be okay. I hope her older cousins consider being kind when they have the opportunity.

I also know I could not have remained inactive in either of those circumstances. Perhaps that makes me a busy-body. I've certainly been accused of that and worse. But overall? I'd rather act and risk offending, taking a chance that I might effect change, than choose to do nothing and let the world slide further into inaction, incivility and apathy.

(c) 2009 Laura S. Packer
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True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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