The Bystander Effect

“Hey.”

“What?”

“Don’t listen to them. They…”

I walked away. I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell her that their words didn’t matter; that she didn’t have to listen to them; that she shouldn’t let them affect her; but I walked away. Fitting in with the silent crowd –jam-packed in their anonymity, shielded by their headphones– and remaining invisible among the faceless symbols of diversity, was all I could think about doing. I didn’t want to be a part of anything. I didn’t want to hear, or converse, or befriend, or help; I wanted to go home. I wanted to get out of those tunnels, and stay wrapped easily in my comfort zone. That place where I neither reach out, nor let in. Yet, as I sat in that train, I somehow managed to become involved. A blur of movement had caught the corner of my eye, and I noted a thin, strangely underweight adolescent girl posed in defiance at the doors of the train. Strange, I mused. Here was someone oddly enthusiastic to leave the train–there were, after all, a few more stations to pass before the express train found its port. I regarded her in curiosity, trying to understand what had occurred. I saw the frailty of her limbs, and the unnaturally sharp angles of her body–a judgmental thought passing through my mind, as I came to recognise her posture (arm at her waist, feet extended in a runway pose, head jutting forward), and eventually the reason for her figure. And of course, I did nothing.

Over the years, I’ve found myself trapped in this little sphere, where I see the world, and I observe the people around me, but I can’t seem to interact with them. Sure, I’ve gotten better at faking the right level of social intimacy, I’ve even fooled myself into thinking that I fit in somewhere. That I’ve been accepted for who I am, quirks, insecurities, and impassive face included. And yet, standing at that precipice, where I was once again on the proverbial fence, and knowing that at different points of my life, I had been both the victimiser, and the victim in the use of cruel taunts, and torts, I couldn’t move. Here was someone who was obviously hurting. Here was an individual whose pain was expressed through her weight, in the way mine had been through my compulsion to read, but all I did do was sit. True, in my sitting, I wasn’t exactly idle. I thought of ways to tell her that she did not have to let their cruelty define her afternoon’s ride. I–and this is me being kind to myself–“struggled” between exposing myself to their taunts, and their unfortunately unkind behaviour towards this thin girl, with her defiant face, and her fight against humiliation. However, when the train finally stopped, and there was no more time left to convince myself that I would get out, and say something on my way that could either make or, improve her day, I walked away. She turned left, and I turned right. It was almost surreal, an ad in a public service announcement of what not to do when we see bullying occurring. All those YouTube videos, and movies where I was appropriately outraged, and inexplicably distraught at the plight of some undeserving victim’s situation, and I walked away.

Later, when I made my way home on the bus, and I sat unobtrusively in my seat, I realised a lot of things. One, that was not the first time I’d seen her on the train at my station. I’d been rushing to get out the station when I’d seen her painfully thin ankles swimming in her sneakers, and had my first judgmental thought. Two, I was no better than any of those girls who mocked, and teased her with a body image she was already struggling with. Three, I had a friend I cared about who is making efforts to overcome the anorexia I feared the girl on the train was dealing with. I know if she had returned home, and posted online of dealing with a situation like that, where no one in a compartment full of people had stepped in, I would have remained anguished for ages at the complacency of “those evil, inconsiderate” silent others. Four, just like that depressed girl I rode the bus with to work every morning, may be if I’d spoken to her, instead of praying for forgiveness for my lapse in action, I would be praying for insight into how to befriend, and help them. I did keep praying that maybe I would see either of them again, so that I could do something for once, but there’s a reason they say, there are three things you cannot regain, “The spent arrow, the harsh word, and the lost opportunity.”

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