A couple of months ago, something happened that I probably should have written about for the blog. But for whatever reason, I didn’t write about it here. Instead, I posted about it on my personal FB page. Here’s what I wrote:
I just stopped a guy who had cornered his crying girlfriend outside Target and was screaming in her face. I’m pretty sure he wanted to hit me, but I still think I did the right thing.
All I could think was how many times I’d wished someone had done the same for me. May not have changed the outcome, but at least I wouldn’t have been left with the bewildering feeling of “how can no one else SEE this?”
I was – and still am – about 99.9% sure I witnessing an act of emotional and verbal abuse. Of course it’s not possible to be certain that’s what was happening, but I had been in that situation enough to know it was very likely.
I also knew enough to know that an abuser isn’t likely to hit their victim in public, so I didn’t make that my standard by which I gauged the situation. I’d been with my abuser for nearly nine years, and during that time he assaulted me in public exactly two times: once on a plane on our way back from our honeymoon, when we got in an argument and he pushed my face hard against the plane window, and once during a dinner with his family when I said something he didn’t like and he pinched my upper thigh so hard it left behind a massive bruise. In public he’d only yell at me, call me names or glare at me in a way that made me afraid for the first moments we’d be alone together.
My initial instinct was to do what everyone else was doing: pretend like I didn’t see, walk inside, hope it went away. But as I walked past, into the in doors, I saw her tear-stained face, and I was ashamed of myself. And so I came right back out of the out doors, walked up to the couple and said, “Hey, is everything OK here?” as I looked them both in the eye. He backed away from her, they both said everything was fine, and then they left.
In the comments of the post, a few people debated whether it was helpful or not, and a couple of women said that if that had been them, their former partners would have beaten them even worse when they were alone. I worried about that too. I still worry, and it’s been three months since it happened. Who knows what’s happened since then? I hope for the best while also acknowledging it could be very, very bad.
I still don’t know what the exact right answer is, but I do think I know what the less wrong answer is. To me, the less wrong answer is to walk past without looking. To look without seeing. To pretend like ignoring something is the same as making it go away.
I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to consider this a lot in the past week, as my social media feeds have filled up with stories of harassment shared by people of color and LGBT people. The election has emboldened some of the most disgusting elements of our society – ones I will admit to naively having thought had been shamed into hiding – and now they feel as though having one of them in the White House is all the permission they need to let that nastiness and hate loose on the people around them.
There’s a guide that’s been making the rounds, about what to do if you witness an incident of Islamophobic harassment in public. I like that it emphasizes defusing the situation and rendering the harasser invisible, and that it doesn’t involve anything particularly complicated on the part of the bystander – just a willingness to actually see what’s happening and a desire to help. It’s definitely worth reading, so please take a minute to click on the link and read it and file it away in your brain for future reference.
I also liked the guide because I felt like it validated some of my own instincts, which is that you don’t have to be confrontational to intervene effectively. You just have to be willing to say something. But I’ll tell you, when I walked up to that guy, I was terrified. There was a tiny part of me that was worried he would take a swing at me. But I did it anyway. And fortunately he didn’t try to hit me, even though I’m pretty sure he wanted to.
Later though, once the adrenaline rush subsided, I realized a big part of why I felt OK doing what I did is because of how I feel in my body. I don’t mean in the way I look, but in the way I actually feel. I’m still as tall as I was when I was that younger, battered woman, and I probably weigh about the same, but the difference is something more intangible.
The difference is in my physical presence. I feel strong and confident in a way that wasn’t always part of who I am. That strength and confidence lets me interact with the rest of the world in ways that haven’t always been accessible to me. I don’t think I would have been able to walk up to a volatile situation in an attempt to defuse it if I didn’t feel like I had a chance at actually being able to handle things. And I don’t know if I’d feel like I’d have a chance at being able to handle things if I hadn’t already proven to myself that I’m strong and tough and capable and courageous.
It reminds me that this is what really matters about fitness and strength and athletics. It’s not about one-rep maxes and fat loss and PRs, but rather about becoming the strongest, most confident versions of ourselves we can be. But even that is not an end in and of itself. What good is strength and confidence if we don’t actually do anything with it? To me, standing up for people who have less power than us and doing what we can to help them seems like a pretty damn good use of that strength and confidence.
I hope I never have to be in that kind of a situation again – not only for my own selfish reasons but also because I never want anyone to feel unsafe like that – but at the very least I know I have it in me to at least try to help. Sadly I suspect the world is going to need more people who have it in them to try to help in the coming years. I just hope more of us – myself included – will actually do it when the need arises.