03 September 2008

Other people's problems

[Post soundtrack: "The Pleasing Song" by Tom Meltzer]

I had an interesting experience today, if a little unnerving. I was with a gaggle of girls from The Tribe and we descended on Gary of the Tiaras in his antique shop this morning. We all had a fine time asking him too many questions, unlocking cases, trying on rings, ogling the oldies, petting Digger the dog, yammering, and brooding over the question: To purchase, or not to purchase? There we were, me with my inspired little present for Darling Billy in hand, and cousin Shenan with a vintage princess tiara perched upon her noble dome, the others with their fists full of turquoise, ceramic, and cobalt, when—


—oh! the absolutely startling and sickening sound of a car wreck. A big wreck.

Shenan and I were out the door in an instant and sprinted the half-block to the intersection. Shenan's gone through EMT training. Me? Well, just last month I took a crash course, so to speak, in Shock and Trauma of 21st Century Collisions, and I was eager to put my new empathy skills to work. It was a messy wreck, but luckily, no one was killed or maimed. We checked on the folks in both cars. Shenan stayed with the young couple and their little boy, and I felt strongly to go and stick with the young Chinese woman alone in her car, sure to be cited for failure to yield. She was in some pretty serious shock. My guts rang out with instructions—Ask her questions. Tell her everyone's okay and that she's going to be okay. Touch her. (Touch her? Really?) YES. Touch her. I didn't know this girl, a 19-year-old university student, but I knelt beside her and gently rubbed her back, and stroked her hair while saying soothing things to her, like she was my kid, and she stayed calm even though it was hard for her to breathe. Pretty soon the medics came and eased her out of the car, carefully bound her to a stretcher, and took her to the hospital. Then I talked some more with the little family and they seemed eager for anything that seemed normal, like a conversation with someone caring. The mom inched away from the edge of hysteria as we talked. Yes, your little boy is fine. See? He's smiling now. Shenan, after having initially checked to make sure everybody still had their heads, had used hers to direct traffic with a lovely cool authority until the police came and eventually relieved her. She kept people from driving over car parts and single-handedly rerouted downtown Provo motorists for a while. That's my kind of princess. I say she earned her bling today (and she paid for the tiara after this incident).

All I could think about was how alone and how horrified and shocked I had felt after my accident on 08.08.08. Just like the Chinese girl, I had been at fault and the other car was loaded with adults who went instantly unhinged over their children. I remembered that, following my accident, most of the attention was given to the noisier of the two parties, and I sat there by myself in my demolished car, confused and scared, and wanting so much for anyone to come and be with me and hold my hand, help me put my head together, and figure out what had just gone wrong. There was very little comfort for me that day; the officials on the scene seemed—shall I say it?—a bit callous toward me. I sat alone for a long time while all sorts of people rallied around the big Suburban even after it was apparent that its occupants were safe. Was it because I'd been the one who'd made the first mistake?

Does this sound whiny?

Anyway. I am glad there were people there to comfort the other folks. It's just that I had needed some help too, there in the middle of a strange town, but had ended up feeling like Public Enemy Number One. Nobody even stayed behind to see that someone came for me; the wreckers left, the officials left, and then I was left standing there on the side of the road, banged up and with an awful headache, still in shock, IN THE RAIN, with a black garbage bagful of stuff that I'd had to pull out of our car by myself. I mean, come on. Does that even sound responsible?

Okay, maybe I am whining.

Luckily, a neighbor lady came out and asked me if I'd like to wait on her porch until someone came for me.

As soon as I heard that awful sound today while I poked around with the gals in Gary's shop, 08.08.08 came back to me like a muscle memory, and I remembered the utter desolation I'd felt. And as soon as I saw that young girl's face I knew she needed me. Not me, of course, but anybody. I got to be Anybody today for somebody whose shoes I was in just three weeks ago.

I remember at the time of my big wreck there was a part of my brain that felt like it was outside my head, apart from the rest of me, observing. When that part started to recognize that the dynamics of the situation weren't right, it was as if a voice told me to pay attention and remember . . . to learn more about what people need when they're in crisis and to comprehend how it feels not to get it.

I'm not ready to stop talking about this, but I keep writing in circles and then deleting, so maybe it's time to give up and go to bed.

I really hope that young woman is okay, and has comforting friends around her tonight. And I hope the little family has stopped shaking.

On a different subject, I heard an incredible forum address today by BYU professor Barta Heiner. I had some tender epiphanies while listening to the podcast episode. I encourage you to listen as well, and if you do, I'll really be interested to hear what you think of it. I suspect you'll be inspired with some great thoughts.


compulsive writer said...

Dear Geo. I love that you were that girls anybody, but I think it was more than that. I know I've told you this before, but you have this calming, comforting aura about you that doesn't come naturally to just anybody. You were somebody for her.

I went to visit Courtney the other day and we were talking about the empathy that we are blessed when we have difficult experiences. I believe it gives meaning to our trials when we use what we learn from them to bless the lives of others.

That said, I also know it can sometimes be a bit traumatic to relive them in the lives of others. Bless you!

Geo said...

CW, you are always so reassuring yourself. Thanks.

I couldn't agree more with you and Courtney. We get these hard experiences, really big like what she and her family are currently going through, and smaller like my car wreck, and then we get to add them to our lists of can-do items. Doesn't mean we magically know just the perfect things to do or say in every similar situation, but it certainly does give us an edge in understanding and it can help open our minds to possibilities we might otherwise miss.

You're right that being involved in others' griefs does often touch old nerves and bring some pain, but maybe that's not really a bad thing. You get to renew your understanding each time. Empathy's fluid, not static. This somehow reminds me of ~j.'s promise to herself not to forget the feelings and struggles of being a teenager. Much as we think we'll never forget lessons learned, we will if we're not vigilant and don't keep them fresh.

Golly, I'm still going on and on about this.

swedemom said...

First, can I just say how brave I think you were to follow your promptings to actually touch the poor girl? She clearly needed the comfort but sometimes we are afraid to break through the hidden boundary zone around a person.

Thank you for sharing. And sometimes I think that seeing someone else going through a similar experience helps us process our own feelings,fears and traumas about an event.

Allison said...

I knew you must have a blog and just had the thought that I probably should have just asked you what it was a long time ago. Now that I have found you, I am not surprised to hear that you continue to be somebody to anybody that you come in contact with. I am so sorry to hear about your accident. Lots of love, my goddess friend. ~Venus

Geo said...

Swedemom, thanks for that. I did wonder at myself, not because I am not a touchy person (I am by nature), but a total stranger? No matter when that feeling is so strong.

Venus, you made my day! You know, right, that I crashed maybe not even five minutes after I left you all at the temple?

marshall p said...

georgia- you're a hero to me.

Geo said...

MP, you are kindness.

i i eee said...

I love so much what you did for that girl. I've been in that same situation, where it was my fault, and the thing I remember about that car accident was making sure that I hadn't killed anyone, and that no one was going to kill me. I had a couple passerby come up to me and yell at me for causing the accident, like I had done it on purpose. We're so eager to blame one another, we forget that most of us have good intentions. We're so dead set on having a hero and a villain, we choose to put people in certain brackets to fill out our storyline.

I'm so sorry that you were left alone in the rain.