Since the election, I have been alarmed by dangerous tweets about possible nuclear arms races, several proposed Cabinet nominations, and a rise in hate crimes. Much of the bigotry has occurred in New York, which I thought had become an increasingly safe place for people of all stripes. I was wrong.
A few weeks ago, I heard a report on the radio about an 18-year old woman who had been harassed by three drunk men on the subway. She alleged that they shouted “Trump!” and attempted to pull her hijab off her head. She also claimed that nobody in the subway car helped her. The story of the attack itself was no surprise. What really shook me was that not a single person came to her aid, although I was jaded enough to know that this was not a shocker, either. I uttered words of disbelief at the radio, without actually disbelieving.
In fact, this is an old story that has been repeated throughout history. I had a similar experience myself. It was the winter of 1993, a time when riding the subway was less secure than it is today. I remember that I wore my warmest coat, a teal-colored L.L.Bean parka. As I descended the staircase, I saw a small group of teenage boys and girls horsing around and laughing. I could sense that they were up to mischief, and hesitated, but I needed to traverse to the other side. Amidst my nascent fear, I silently reasoned to myself that nothing was going to happen. When I reached the platform, two were standing on one side, and the others were grouped opposite them with enough room to walk in between. They started calling me “chink,” and then one of them shoved me hard across the path. I started to walk as fast I could without breaking into a run. I stumbled to the other side, where another one shoved me back. All the while, the teens were laughing and shouting. It was a game to them. Thankfully I was moving so quickly, that I was not caught in a scrum. Instead, I moved like a pinball, jostled from side to side, but ultimately away. I never turned around and never made eye contact, though I could hear them jeering at me from behind, amidst their laughter. I was terrified, but I just kept moving. Nobody noticed. Nobody helped.
During the same week of the report of the Muslim girl, which has now been discredited, I read a story of every-day valor and humanity in the newspaper. An adjunct French language professor witnessed an assault between two subway cars that started with a loud bang when the victim was slammed against the opposite subway car door. She attempted to get the attention of her fellow passengers in order to intervene. But since nobody responded, she acted independently. At the moment when the victim was held against the door on her side, she yanked it open and pulled him in. It turned out that the victim was an 11-year old boy, and the attacker a man over 6 feet tall.
Confucius preached that human relationships should serve as the guiding force behind our behavior. Our actions ought to benefit our immediate community and ourselves. The French professor’s act of bravery shines a light through the darkness of hate. She stood up for someone who is vulnerable, even at a potential cost to her own security. As we embark on 2017, we need to actively commit to being humanists with an open heart. When we make heart-based decisions – whether fast ones in the heat of the moment, or deliberately thoughtful ones – then we become beacons of hope, safety, and love. Be that very embodiment of the shining city upon a hill. Our collective well-being depends on it.
Mila Atmos is a columnist whose work has been featured by The Huffington Post, Quartz, and Medium.
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