How could I have avoided being mugged in a subway stairwell a few weeks ago? I could have used another subway entrance, one that was not so empty and silent in the middle of a beautiful spring day. I suppose I also could have listened to that small twinge in my gut when I passed an angry-looking man on my way in. And of course I could have taken more martial arts classes, and maybe reacted faster when I heard him running back down the stairs behind me. I might have been able to jump out of the way before he shoved me with both hands down the stairs.
But then what? So what if I had somehow evaded that instance of violence? Yes, I'd be happier without a broken wrist, black eye, and bump on my head. And I will do those things that will in the short term make me safer -- I will travel a little more cautiously, listen more carefully to those twinges that warn me I might be in danger.
But that alone doesn't come close to addressing what happened. Staying clear of guys like that -- perhaps by moving to a wealthier neighborhood, which would of course and unfairly be safer than this poor 'hood -- doesn't guarantee me anything beyond a false sense that violence is elsewhere and I don't have to worry about it.
What I really want is for that guy to feel less inclined to push people down the stairs.
Often I look at faces on the subway and I wonder what people looked like as kids. It's a favorite game. How soft and sweet their features were before they grew up and got laugh lines or piercings, ate too much, slept too little, worked hard, fell in love, fell back out. Sometimes I come across a face that is so worn and changed that I can't see the kid at all. That's the most fascinating to me -- the physical signs of distance from childhood, proof that someone is a long, long way from the time when he or she was most open, most hopeful, most trusting, most sweet. That a lot has happened since then to make the face look like that, to make the person into who he or she is now.
The guy who pushed me down the stairs did not look wrinkled or scarred. His face was smooth, the child easily imagined. But his look was flat, dull, angry. What happened in his life to make him look like that? I have no idea. But I don't think it's naive to assume an accumulation of bad things. He wasn't getting along just fine all his life until one day maybe he started doing heroin and then a week later he turned around and followed me into an empty subway station.
It's not an exaggeration to say that what happens to us in childhood is part of what sets us on the trajectory we take for life. All of my siblings, no matter our individual struggles, are mild and smart, and we laugh easily and mope darkly. We all had pretty much the same environment growing up, the same parental involvement, the same collection of good and bad teachers, the same kinds of inspiring and downer friends to grow close to or let go of. And even though we each have some heavy things to struggle against, we have, as a safety net, each other, a baseline of love and friendship that we are allowed to take for granted, like air. It's caught me many times.
I think that guy has had a pretty lousy time of it thus far. At some point his life began to feel unsustainable -- no baseline, no safety net. Don't get me wrong; I'm not feeling very sorry for him. It takes a deliberate effort to shove someone down the stairs, no matter how your environment has influenced you. But I do think that a few small interactions in his life before that point would have made a difference, would have changed the trajectory, would have made him less inclined to shove.
This is why: because that one interaction between us caused so much change in my life. It made me nervous of the subway, it cost me thousands of dollars in canceled work assignments, and having one useful arm makes even getting dressed in the morning a frustratingly slow process.
And it inspired a lot of good: Friends and family reached out to help me immediately, and keep doing so. I've never felt more grateful for the safety net that I am allowed to take for granted.
But this is the clincher: My brother Peter was talking recently about how amazing it was that one man's split-second action had caused so much pain for so many people, and in the next breath he said, "But it makes you think, maybe the small good things we do actually create a lot of good, too."
That, I think, is how to avoid a mugging. It's not that doing good works protects you, karma-style, from violence. It's that dedicating yourself more and more to those small opportunities to do good do in fact have a ripple effect. They cause so much good for so many people. They alter trajectories. They make peace sustainable.
After three splints and one surgery, the bones of my right wrist are finally set, a bunch of pins holding them in place, and my black eye is almost entirely faded. The bump on my head is almost gone now too. My friends and family have been taking care of me -- each in their own way -- for nearly a month already, from coming over for lunch when I hated leaving the house, to helping me with paperwork and bills, to taking me out to a benefit concert for someone else with a broken limb. (Hey Julie! Hope that leg is healing ;) Strangers have helped me open water bottles (try doing that one-handed!), open doors, and generally cheer up. All that support and love and fun makes me see very clearly what keeps my life and my happiness sustainable: the good things done to me by others.
Liz was co-founder of HumanKind Media. You can read about her here.