My daily walk on Easter Sunday was like most days. The sun was shining, the wind was spirited, and dogs and their people were enjoying their frolics, walks, runs, and rides. Balls were kicked, plastic eggs were tossed, and kites were flown. People kept their distance from strangers and only a few covered themselves with gloves, masks or scarves.
It was a beautiful, calm, buoyant day.
Until I heard the sharp hollering. One middle-aged man was calling out a young athletic type for using the pull-up bar at one of the park’s workout stations. The wind had snatched the red-striped marker tape and “out of service” signs that had been attached days before.
“You’ve not got gloves! You’re not wiping down the equipment! You care nothing for anyone else. What if that lady there with her three kids were to come over and one of them starts touching this? They could catch coronavirus.”
All the passers-by, including me, socially-distanced ourselves from this altercation.
The older man was right, of course. The dog-walkers knew it. The runners knew it. The older lady ahead of me, wearing an N95 mask, knew it. I knew it.
But we kept going, swerving past the altercation.
This incident represented so much: How the rules of engagement have changed. How each of us can choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. How looking out for yourself isn’t enough. How accountability matters. How we’re being watched. How we’re being tested on how we show up in this new reality.
Why didn’t I speak up?! I should’ve supported the man’s message. The community has to look out for ourselves and each other. He did right calling out such reckless behaviour. Someone was brave to stand up for what’s right. Yet I did nothing!
I felt like a coward.
What would I have said? This is Scotland, where people are reserved, not New York City, where any of us loudmouths are ready to butt in! I feel terrible.
I kept walking, trying to work out why I didn’t act. Would I have reinforced the positive of this neighbourhood watchman or (further) embarrassed this kid simply trying to strengthen his body? Is it possible the young man made an innocent mistake? Does he not understand the guidelines? Did the older man react emotionally beyond reason? Did he take it too far with a public shaming?
Sociology shows that crowd behaviour changes depending on the size of the group. If the number of witnesses to a scene increases, there’s a dilution of responsibility; a person first expects “someone else” to act and if no one does, they all recede to inaction together. It’s called The Bystander Effect. This explains the phenomenon of a public crime being committed against an individual despite witnesses.
Oh, I should have applauded the man lecturing the kid! Yes, that would be enough of a statement without approaching them or getting involved. Yes, clapping — the perfect understated show of support. Shall I double-back to do so?
Somehow I just kept on my trajectory, one foot in front of the other. While I felt like I failed to show up in the name of truth and righteousness, something nagged at me. Why didn’t I stand up as witness and support?
Walking has a way of working out thoughts and feelings. Works every time for me.
I figured it out: While I did agree with the man’s sentiments, I didn’t abide his methods.
He was hollering very loudly at this young man, and he was clearly driven by emotions. While he had every right to be, the young man didn’t challenge him physically or verbally. He just stood there, answering the man seemingly in a calm, hushed tone. Maybe he was unaware the workout equipment was off-limits. Maybe he said “sorry.” Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was upset his workout got derailed, his ego bruised. Maybe the riled-up man was loud because he has a friend, parent or child in the ICU.
My conclusion: I just didn’t have enough context of the situation to act in a way that would honor what I’d like to believe was a teachable moment for the young man and a positive step for accountability action by the older man. The risk I wasn’t prepared to take was possibly turning up the heat on an already simmering encounter and also being seen as supporting the way it was going down.
This type of situation is going to continue. As hygiene and behaviour guidelines continue to be issued — yet fall just short of legally enforceable protocol — there will be moments when a person or a group witnesses reckless behaviour that puts others at risk.
Such a dilemma is not just about catching this virus or the next one: It’s about what’s right or wrong, fair or unfair.
And we’re in a very precarious spot right now. Society is polarised on many levels. The “us vs. them” mentality pervades politics, economics, education, health, religion, and so many other areas. Nationalism versus globalism. Brexit.
The “haves” and “have-nots” scenario has always existed, but it’s going to get a lot worse as each side partitions themselves off from conversation, casts the other side as extreme and unreasonable, and digs a deep moat. When that happens, hopes for cooperation or even collaboration are dashed. When we stop relating and communicating, we are all doomed. The moat will have to be drained, and each side will have to brave muddy slopes to meet in the middle without getting stuck down.
Until we realise that we are in this together, and act accordingly, we sink to the lowest common denominator. And that is a bad, sick and lonely place to be.
Coronavirus has taught us, both harshly and warmly, that we are part of a huge collective: While it has caused death and threatens destruction, masses of people across the world have answered quarantine by joining each other to applaud those on the frontline. And scientists at universities, companies and government agencies are sharing learnings across borders, ideologies and competitive lines to curb the spread and test would-be vaccines.
My Easter Sunday started with watching the YouTube video of Mass from St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the homily message was about having hope for the light amid the dark. But the lesson of my exercise hour was forgiveness.
Among the two men in the park and myself, can we each forgive ourselves and each other for the actions we did or did not take?
This encounter revealed the fine line between blame (negative) and accountability (positive).
I believe the way forward is to start with respect (for one’s self and for others) and to realise the inherent power each of us has to choose our own attitude and actions.
We’ll need patience, though, and in generous amounts. We’ll need enough for ourselves as well as for others.