I was walking down an extremely busy Brick Lane, dodging people while I walked the small poodle I'm looking after. If you know Brick Lane, you can imagine the crowds, if you don't, trust me, it's a challenging place to walk at any speed. Tourists travel from far and wide to meander at a snails place down its cobbled street.
I was on the phone (via headphones/loudspeaker) but had my attention diverted by loud shouting. I saw two large men, pushing each other, and at first I presumed they were friends, playing about. I quickly realised they were in fact the opposite of friends, and were grabbing each other by the collar to start a fight. Both of them looked so driven by anger; I've seen that look before, back when I was a teacher. It seems to be caused by a dangerous blend of ego, pride and fear. Ego dictates that they can't back down, pride makes them want to appear the bigger man, and fear triggers the fight or flight response (ego and pride stop them using the flight option).
As an A-Level student many moons ago I studied by-stander apathy, which is the fancy word for the the study of why people don't help when seeing an incident. The most famous case study was that of Kitty Genovese, a woman murdered in public, with 38 separate witnesses, none of whom called the police, or tried to help.
So, when I see something scary happening, I recall when I learned in class. People don't get involved for many reasons, many of which I realised were happening during this fight in the middle of Brick Lane.
1. It's often not certain what is happening. Do the people know each other? Is it a game? Do they really want our help?
2. When other people are also witnessing the event, we check to see what they are doing. If no one else seems bothered, it is a sign to us that we do not need to be. We must be misinterpreting the situation.
3. We're scared to help. Being a Londoner, I have a real fear of getting involved and being stabbed for my efforts. This was drummed into me as a teenager. This fear is valid and understandable.
4. We're not sure how to help, or we presume someone else is much better equipped to. How do you stop two big men fighting anyhow?
So, in that split second of seeing two men locked in a standoff neither were willing to back down from, my mind flashed to Kitty Genovese, and to my years breaking up fights of children. I couldn't be the person who walked by, and then read about a stabbing in Brick Lane. I knew it just needed diffusing, the men just needed an excuse to back down.
So cue me, a woman in an oversized white faux fur jacket and a teeny poodle, getting right in the middle of the two men, who were still shouting, and both holding onto each other by the collars. I touched them, "Come on guys, just walk away, it's a busy street with children,", I just wanted to break the tension, to break the physical contact, and allow them to back down without damaging their egos.
It didn't have the instant impact I'd hoped for, but I stayed, "Come on guys, enough now,". It felt like a long time, but most probably wasn't, they let go, and one started to walk away. The other wasn't quite so ready, and still pursued. I discovered what the confrontation was over, and I'm almost embarrassed for them, but lets say it involved a balloon.
I find it so heartbreaking that young, strong men like this walk around with such wells of deep anger, that a balloon can trigger it. That they haven't learned that peace is so much sweeter for their souls. These random fights are how lives get ruined.
Anyhow, I walked away, and my fear and anxiety from getting involved finally bubbled up. I called out to the crowd, "Thanks for helping me," but I didn't really mean it. What help would I even have wanted? As I said it, my eyes locked with a man's. He defended his lack of input, and I argued with him as I walked past.
This blog post is aimed at this man. The man I accidentally tried to shame for not helping. I instantly felt awful that you felt my comment was directed at you alone. As I said, I'm not even sure what help I would have liked. I doubt a man getting involved would have helped, and perhaps more likely would have escalated it even further. I was playing on the fact that I was small, fluffy and not quite an punchable.
So, man I directed my comment at, I'm sorry, and I felt guilty. My anger, disappointment and sadness about the world in that moment was not your fault, and I did not mean to leave it at your door. I was scared, and I spoke out of fear. And I'm sorry for directing it your way.