I have learned that I have yet to learn bravery. It will take unlearned cowardice.
Some moments are hard to think about. Some are hard to write about. Some are both, perhaps because we don’t like their implications. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me so long to write about this.
On one of my last days in New York, I watched a man slump backwards down the stairs of the subway and go unconscious. I had been facing away from him, and my friend had seen it first. Our conversation was calm, so I didn’t know how to read the urgency suddenly in his voice. I turned, as slow as you turn in water, the air resisting me like a wave, and I watched a man slump backwards down the stairs, his grip loosening on the railing, his body bending in the middle as he moved soley with gravity’s force.
I stood still, caught outside my training. I realized even then, there in that moment, that it was social training. My training said “don’t interfere.” My training said, “you’ll get in trouble for messing up.” My training also said, “you’re a girl, you’re useless in these situations.” That last one stung as I recognized it.
My friend was quick to move, despite the cane which hindered him. He was too far away to catch the body on the stairs falling backward, but he was next to the man in an eyeblink. When I came unstuck I rushed over underwater, and a glance told me the man was breathing. “Sir?” repeated three times and got no response.
I was always a step behind my friend, who was already flagging down the subway workers. All I could do was clarify where my friend’s words seemed to me to be cluttered, echoing in different words what he said, attempting to make heard that the man on the stairs was unconscious. “He’s not responding.” I said it five times exactly, the record skipping and there it was again.
The subway staff seemed slower to act than me, even, perhaps because they were changing shifts. I could speculate now, though I couldn’t at the time. My friend was already back standing next to the man. Two or three people stopped out of the dozens who walked by, stepped over, and someone asked if the unconscious figure was diabetic. The context of this whole situation fell away from my feet and I felt really afraid then. What if? We had no way of asking him.
The man on the stairs stirred, sat up, obviously disoriented. His motions seemed further away than my own– the entire situation was sharp in degrees, what happened around this person was the clearest, especially the actions of my friend, my own body was far away from me, smudged and obscured, and this man, once awake, seemed the farthest and slowest and blurriest. He wouldn’t respond to questions posed to him, and his whole person seemed blurry from the outside looking in.
We walked away only after we were assured an ambulance was coming. My friend was shaken. The only one who seemed free to move and act in the situation, and he began blaming himself, for not catching the man, for not doing enough. He railed– who else had stopped, tried to help?
Guiltily I looked down at my hands, my sparse grip-callouses, the dirt under my nails, and thought to myself, I wouldn’t have. All those years of social training to stay back, out of the way, all the helplessness I’ve learned, I wouldn’t have. I couldn’t meet his blue-grey eyes, knowing about myself what I now knew. I can only put all that away if someone dear to me is in danger– it’s the only time I ever have. I can unlearn the fear and training for a loved one, but not a stranger. But then it’s not bravery, just instinct.
And that’s why I couldn’t understand his anger toward himself. He did everything right. I envied his ability to act.