Creating Transformation in Practice (Part 3)
The Pillar Of Protection, Continued:
I was living in DC about a year and a half ago and one warm evening, I took a rather long stroll to the local shopping mall in Columbia Station. I was about three quarters of an hour walk away from my home in Dupont Circle. I buzzed around the big box stores for a couple of hours and then began the long walk home. At that point it was late and dark, but the streets were still busy. The walk home took me through a rather rough neighborhood, near some lower-income housing projects. Bunches of people were congregated on the sidewalk in the warm summer night air.
As I walked down the street, a young boy and his friend passed by me. In an instant I noticed the boy closest to me (who looked about eleven years old at most) had tears running down his face. I stopped in my tracks and stood in front of him, preventing him from walking any further. “What’s wrong?” I demanded. The young boy looked at me and then looked away, embarrassed. I turned to his friend, “What’s the matter? Tell me!” I said to him. He pointed to a group of tall, tough-looking teenage boys behind them. “They were bothering him,” he said. I walked over to the group. “Listen, guys,” I told them, speaking to them perhaps in the way that their mother would, “it hurts me in my heart when I see a little man walking down the street with tears on his cheeks.” I looked into their faces, “Please don’t make him cry.” They looked back at me. “I’m going,” I said after a moment, “and when I am gone, please don’t be bothering him anymore.” One of them nodded at me. He was a tall young man of about sixteen or so. I remember his short dreadlocks and his fashionable ‘gangsta’ style clothing. In his eyes I saw the acknowledgement; something in my words had struck a chord. The little boy was far down the street, I don’t know how much of the interaction he was aware of, though I imagine he realized that some stranger had come to his aid.
It struck me as I continued my walk home that perhaps the entire interaction (which had taken in total not more than a few minutes) was perhaps not only for the little boy, but perhaps for the young man with the dreadlocks as well, for the acknowledgement and humanity was brought out in him by the encounter. In that moment, he was no longer just a member of his ‘posse,’ but a singular individual with his own level of awareness and responsibility. I have no idea what the lasting impact was of the intervention, certainly it protected and spared the young boy in that moment, but there may have been ramifications on all of them that were more long-lasting as well. To illustrate what I mean, I will share another quick story:
Imagine a subway car in New York City with riders sitting on the seats, or holding onto the straps of the moving car, each one absorbed in his or her thoughts, shielding themselves inside of the bubbles that New Yorkers tend to inhabit. Suddenly a voice pierces through the car, a young man’s voice, “Please help me – won’t someone please help me?” The riders squirm uncomfortably, they don’t know what is going on. They look up and then look away. A young girl of about ten or eleven, riding alone, looks on. As the adult passengers and the young girl try to figure out what is going on, the young man repeats his plea, “Won’t someone please help?”
He is in his late teens or early twenties, dressed in typical student’s attire. Milling threateningly around him is a gang of teenagers. The adult passengers aren’t about to get involved. The young girl is certainly too small to be able to do anything. The young man is obviously feeling endangered by the gang surrounding him. Out of nowhere, a woman, perhaps in her late thirties or early forties, walks over to the group. She is slender and petite, the teens tower over her. “What is wrong?” she asks the young man. “They are threatening me – they are saying they want to beat me up,” he says. The teens respond belligerently, “He was talking to my girl,” one of them says. It is a transparent excuse. It is clear that they are simply giving a justification for bullying (or perhaps wanting to mug) him. The woman does not argue with them. “Alright,” she says as the train pulls into the station, “You” – she points to the young man – “You get off here, and you all,” she points to the gang of teens, “you stay on and he won’t make any problem for you.” The doors open and she ushers the young man out of the car. She stands between him and the gang of teens as he disembarks. The gang, following her instruction, remains on the subway car as the doors close. In a moment, the possible confrontation is over. The woman walks away.
Why am I telling this story in particular? There may be no one there that day long ago who remembers the encounter, the woman herself may not (if she is still alive – it took place several decades ago). The young man may not remember. The gang of teens may have certainly forgotten all about it. The other people in the car who did not respond to the young man’s plea for help have certainly long forgotten it. One person, however, remembers it clearly to this day. That person is the young girl. How do I know this? The reason is that I was that young girl, sitting in the subway car, many years ago, watching the situation unfold. That brief encounter – the willingness and commitment the lone woman had – to stand up, put herself in a difficult situation and make a difference in the life of a total stranger (when no one else would) made an impression on me that has remained with me my entire life. It had an influence on me that continues to this very day. Ironically, the woman was unaware of who it was that she most deeply affected on that long-ago day. I am telling this story to illustrate that when you intervene to protect someone, you have no idea who is actually the person who is most affected. Like the teenager in the previous story, the life you touch may be someone who you would least expect. We are simply tools, instruments – of a power and plan greater than ourselves.
Having the privilege of intervening to protect another person is sometimes dependent on something as minor as looking up at the right moment, noticing, investigating, making a difference. Protection is the primary pillar of being transformative in the lives of others.