Several years ago, I took my daughter to a feminist conference in Newcastle. We had a lovely time. Right up until the very last minute. We were booked on the last train home on the Sunday night. Unfortunately, there was a huge kerfuffle due to an error on the notice boards, which had the last train to London and the last train to Edinburgh leaving at the same time from the same platform. Mistakes happen, but people were very stressed and there was a lot of pushing and shoving from adults. A little girl, no more than 5, standing to the right of me was pushed off the platform under the train that had pulled up. It was one of those moments where time stood still. Every second felt like a million minutes. I froze. The man, who was directly behind my daughter and better in a crisis, knocked my daughter over so he could grab the little girl.
He saved her life.
He also apologised to me for knocking my daughter over.
I caught the apology as I was dealing with my daughter who was in distress. I hope I said something along the lines of ‘don’t worry’ or thank you. I can’t guarantee it though as I was trying to get my kid, our luggage, and help the other mother with her luggage onto the train. I don’t remember if she said thank you to him either. She definitely said thank you once we were all on the train, but the man who saved the little girl wasn’t in the carriage and everyone who was told her not to apologise.
Usually, this memory only comes up when we’re at the Newcastle train station and my travel anxiety levels explode. What kicked off the memory this time is an incident in Canada where a little girl was pulled off a dock by a seal lion. There is some debate as to who was responsible: the child’s guardians for letting her get to close to a wild animal or the people who were feeding the sea lions (which may or may not have been a family member of the little girl). What caught my eye was a media article that quoted a complaint from an eye witness who claimed that the family members didn’t thank those who intervened to rescue the little girl, which seemed rather beside the point. Granted, this could be the media making a mountain out of a molehill or deliberately misrepresenting a comment. Equally, this statement could have been from an eyewitness in shock babbling – certainly it’s the kind of babble I have come out with in difficult situations where my mouth bypasses my brain. And, obviously, it would have been good if the family had said thank you, but none of us really know how we would act in an emergency. Would we rush into help? Phone an ambulance? Provide emergency first aid? Panic?
When did our cultural empathy get permanently lost? – that we worry more about the performance of good manners than actually being kind.Why do we refuse to recognise how different people react to trauma?Why don’t we accept that it’s okay to be so distraught in a moment that we don’t see what is happening in our immediate vicinity; that there is nothing wrong with focusing on an injured, frightened, and wet child to the detriment of having ‘good’ manners. I suspect my reaction would be similar to the family, who left immediately with the child. Because I would be embarrassed and my anxiety response to everything is to hide. Having been severely bullied at school for years and dealing with an emotionally abusive stepparent, I know my trauma reactions in difficult situations (and that feeling in my stomach writing that down). I know that some people have lived lives free from such issues have different reactions. I’m just not sure how we’ve arrived at a place where the performance of perfection is more important than giving people the space to process events.
If this story is as stated in the media and you agree with the bystander’s main complaint that a frightened person should have expressed sufficient gratitude, you probably want to review your priorities. A little bit of kindness goes a long way.