As I'm writing this, I am in my favorite cafe.
This is a truly awesome cafe. it's always clean, has great coffee, and fast WiFi. It's in a perfect location for me, and has long opening hours. And it's run by a lovely Korean couple, who take pride it making it the best cafe possible.
What more could a guy ask for?
This morning as I packed up to break for my daily gym session, one of the owners - a young woman in her 20's - said "Mike, don't goooooo."
She seemed a bit sad- so I paused to see what was happening for her.
Without me needing to ask, she shared that she gets nervous when I'm not at the cafe. Sometimes when she's alone, strange people come in from the street and harass her, or steal things. Right in front of her.
Well, sure, we're in the central city. There will be homeless people asking for handouts, or the occasional drunk you have to turn away. It comes with the territory, right?
But she then showed me a video on her phone.
It was a video taken yesterday, of a guy threatening her, Frankly, it was intense, even with the audio off. He was lunging right over the counter, really in her face. You could see he was quite drunk and and very aggressive. She had nowhere to go, cornered in the back of the cafe. And even in the central city, police take some minutes to arrive - by which time he had left, un-accosted and free to harass others, or to return and harass her more later.
It seems that this kind of situation is pretty much a daily occurrence for her- particularly in the early morning when the cafe opens, and angry, drunk, aggressive people are around from their evening revelries the night before.
Ever since her partner started his professional job, and hasn't been at the cafe with her much, she's been more aggressively targeted by random aggressors and thieves.
And despite how often I frequent this cafe, I was totally, completely unware of what she was going through on a daily basis.
I'm writing this because that experience made me reflect on some important things.
#1 - The people around us see "the World" differently than we do
Frankly, the World is kinda fucked up.. and by "the World", I mean People... some people are just kinda fucked up.
We may not encounter them often, or their dark states only come out when they are drunk, on drugs, or stressed, but...
Humans aren't always well-behaved- and some people in our society are more vulnerable than others. We are often unaware of this, because they are targeted only when they're alone.
In particular, as men, we often don't see our surroundings the same way that women do.
When I walk through the city, I encounter strange, aggressive, and drunk people often, but I very rarely feel threatened, personally. Perhaps I just don't see them as a threat to me, or perhaps they don't see me as a target, and leave me alone.
I weigh 100 kgs and I'm in decent shape, with a bit of martial arts training. If something went down, I feel decently prepared to defend myself - and I'm sure that influences my risk assessment of the world around me, in some way.
But a 40 kg young Korean female? Her perspective on that exact same situation is likely quite different.
As humans, living in a community alongside each other- I think we all need to be much more aware of these things and look out for each other.
#2 - People often hide their distress
Do you think you would be immediately aware of someone's distress? Think again.
Until my cafe-owning-friend shared it with me- I didn't see clearly how the world around us looked through her eyes. She felt vulnerable and afraid and until that moment, I had zero awareness of this fact.
Why do people hide their need for help?
Perhaps some people feel too vulnerable, when they reveal their vulnerabilities. Or perhaps they feel shame about their inability to deal with a situation on their own. Perhaps they feel nothing can be done- like in many marital-abuse situations- and perhaps they even think sharing the problem with others will just make things worse.
I recently became aware that a neighbor of mine, an elderly man, has been "hitting the bottle" a bit hard lately. He makes an effort to hide it, but last week he was found lying on outside of my apartment building by a stranger, who tried to help him.
I happened to be headed to the gym just then and encountered this scene of a big Pacific Islander named Hamish holding my neighbor upright, since my neighbor couldn't keep his balance on his own.
Thanks Hamish, wherever you are, bro. You're a good bloke.
I took over, and helped my neighbor into the building, and up the lift to his apartment.
I had no idea that he was struggling, until that incident. He hid it well.
Do you know who around you is struggling? Because chances are, someone is, in some way- and they're hiding it from you.
#3 - We distortion our own reality, with the "Light Bulb Effect"
I always believed that I would be able to clearly see when someone needs help. I'd be in that situation with them at the same moment... I'd see their reactions of pain, panic, grief, or fear... and I could offer to help.
This experience opened my eyes to the fact, that much of the time, when people are suffering and need help, we simply won't know.
In fact, it's worse than that- because sometimes, us simply being there changes the situation dramatically, and hides the problem from us completely.
Discovering this shocked me.
- My friend was only ever harassed when I'm not there. Part of this was just random timing- but also, me being there meant she was less likely to be harassed. I could see the drunk people walk be, but they didn't come in. I was in a sense providing some level of protection without even being aware of it.
- I couldn't see her anxiety. She never showed sadness, discomfort, or fear that I could see. Probably she hid her anxiety well, but also me being there actually allowed her to relax and feel happy. I was only able to see her comfortable state.
When I'm there, the cafe always seems safe. It never occurred to me than when I'm not there, it might not feel as safe.
When I'm there, she always seems happy and relaxed. It never occurred to me that when I'm not there, she might be anxious.
In this situation I was unknowingly creating a reality-distortion-field. I could only see the world that was there when I was there - but I didn't see how my own presence was changing the situation. When I was away, the world wasn't exactly the same, but I couldn't see how it changed.
When our presence changes the world around us, can we ever have a clear understanding of what reality is like? We can only see our warped version of it.
I call this the light bulb effect, because I imagine a light bulb walking into a dark room- thus lighting it up brightly- and saying "what darkness? I don't see any darkness."
And actually, quantum physicists have a whole lot to say about this effect and how our whole world may well be governed by perception.
I think the important thing to be aware of is the reality distortion effect itself. We may never know when we're distorting our own reality- but if we look, and ask the right questions, perhaps we can see more clearly.
But it does make me wonder- what other people have been in my world, who were going through crap that I could easily have helped with- but I had zero awareness of their situation?
#4 - The people around us see "Us" differently than we see ourselves
I don't think of myself as a protector, certainly not in a physical sense.
I've never been a bodyguard or a bouncer. Other than when I was a kid, and looking after my younger sister, or as a father looking after my kids, I've never felt like I was in that "protector" role.
It is not a conscious aspect of my identity, and it surprised me to learn that someone else saw me that way.
Which raises an interesting question...
Who are you, to the people around you, and why?
And, is that different from who you are, to yourself?
Becoming aware of this just might help you understand how people relate to you, and how you can be the best friend possible to them.
What Can We Do to Help?
I'm going to think a lot about this, but here are my first thoughts.
Social Responsibility Begins with Awareness
Being aware of the problem is the starting point of our social responsibility.
Let's revisit this new view of reality;
- Even when we feel perfectly safe, the people around us may not feel as safe as we do.
- In an uncomfortable situation, we can often just leave. But not everyone enjoys that same level of freedom. Perhaps they have an abusive spouse, but the spouse controls the bank account, and threatens to take away the kids.
- People often actively hide their distress, or emotions.
- Some people are more vulnerable than others, and they may be targeted.
- People can be vulnerable to external risks, such as other people - or internal risks, such as an inability to deal with depression, grief, or anxiety.
Let's be real. The stronger, larger, bolder humans among us enjoy some privilege- in exactly the same way that someone born with family wealth has certain advantages that they're not even aware of.
Re-consider your risk-assessments...
If you notice a situation in which you feel some small threat - multiply that by 10. That's how someone who is more vulnerable than you feels in that same situation.
Simply being aware of what's happening can make a huge difference to building a healthier, happier tribe.
Compassion is a Verb
When we're able to, we should seek to create a crucial, basic level of security wherever we go.
And it doesn't take much. We can do that by;
- Simply remaining near when someone feels threatened, so they're not alone- while being ready to call for help, or to intervene, if necessary.
- Calling out someone's bullying behavior.
- Confronting and shutting down behind-the-back sabotage of another person.
- Offering to help someone with a travel bag that's too heavy for them to roll up a steep hill.
- Checking-in on elderly neighbors, or someone who is lonely, or isolated, or grieving.
- Preventing someone from drunk-driving, when we have that opportunity.
- Offering to walk someone to their car after dark.
Observe what's happening around you, and you'll probably add a hundred more simple things to this list, that make a huge difference to someone's life.
Now that I know my elderly neighbor's situation, I'm keeping an eye on him, and looking for ways to get him the help that he needs. Our whole apartment floor knows, so that we can keep an eye on him together, and help him through this challenge.
My cafe owner friend now has my phone number on speed dial, and knows that when I leave the cafe, I'll be right next door for another hour at the gym, an easy phone call away.
Those simple things cost me nothing.
Do Not Allow Uncertainty to Paralyze You
About three years ago, I was having coffee with a close friend and as we were walking down the street, I heard her say... "That looks dangerous."
I glanced in the direction that she was looking and saw a toddler, perhaps a year old, excitedly stumbling his way between two parked cars and towards the busy street.
Here's what my brain did...
- My first reaction was complete surprise. I simply didn't expect to be confronted with that problem.
- My second reaction was confusion. Where's his mother? She must be nearby, right? I just can't see her...
- My third reaction was uncertainty. What should I do? I can't touch someone else's child!
- Finally, I decided holy f-ck I'd better grab that kid.
I darted over and scooped him up just before he stepped out into traffic.
In that moment, I was totally prepared to be screamed at, or be hit over the head with a purse. I expected all hell to break loose in that moment, because I felt like I was doing something both totally inappropriate, and absolutely necessary.
I took a deep breath, and then looked around, trying to figure out where this little dude had escaped from.
Five seconds later, a panicked mother ran out of a nearby shop, and saw me holding her son. She was overjoyed- she immediately burst into tears, and said thank you about 10 times in Chinese.
Whew. Intense moment.
Reflecting on this I realized that my hesitation nearly cost a child his life. The street was full of passing cars, and they just could not see him coming. If I'd waited just one more second, he would almost certainly have been hit.
Every one of us will probably find ourselves in a situation someday, where an important, uncomfortable decision needs to be made NOW.
You will probably feel uncertainty, panic and paralysis in that moment, just like I did.
As long as you are not seriously endangering your own life, act anyway, with zero hesitation.
You don't need to evaluate anything. Let people scream at you later if they want to. You'll still know that you did the right thing.
Connect to your Community. Build your Tribe.
Become more engaged in your community. Simply be out more, and make an effort to connect. Get to know people like your neighbors and your local shopkeepers. Learn their names and think of them as part of your tribe.
Be that person that people feel OK to come to when they genuinely need help.
Start a running club, so that other people who feel a bit vulnerable can join you and feel safe to run in your neighborhood.
Introduce neighbors to each other.
Visit elderly or shut in neighbors once in awhile, make sure they have someone they can call if they're in need of help. You might even decide to be that person for them.
Small steps for you can make a big difference to someone else.
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