Recently I traveled to New York City to attend a conference. As I maneuvered the streets of this lively and crowded city, I was reminded of the way I used to walk there, and in other crowded areas. I used to sidestep when almost anyone was headed in my direction, especially when there wasn’t much free space around us in which to navigate.
It took me quite some time to notice this pattern in myself, how I tended to literally step aside when someone approached me on the same path I was on. Roughly 95% of the time, I accommodated the “approaching other.” I am not sure of all of my reasons behind that choice, but it seemed something (someone) had to “give” in order to avoid a collision. Over and over I moved over.
At first I told myself it was the gracious and generous thing to do. Next came the rational idea that someone had to make room so foot traffic could flow smoothly. After awhile I began to notice my surprise that the people approaching me didn’t even seem to look up and notice me until we were practically on top of each other. It was as if they were unconcerned about what was ahead of them (like me).
Soon I began to feel irritation and annoyance that these others were not playing by the same “rules” as I was and “how on earth were they not paying more attention?” Quickly this became “what on earth are they thinking?!” And finally I landed in true anger at the self-absorption of others and the overall lack of generosity I was experiencing on the streets.
It took some number of rounds of this “walking experience” before it dawned on me to consider the question, “what if I didn’t step aside, first, each and every time?”
So, I began an experiment – right then and there on the crowded streets of Manhattan. First, I set the intention of being as curious and observant as I could be as I changed my behavior in walking. (I did not want to fall prey to attempting to “win” some kind of contest). I took a couple of deep breaths and I began to walk across town. Each time someone approached me, using the same path I was on, I softened my knees, kept my gaze forward and continued to walk my path.
Interestingly, an array of things began to happen. More and more people began to look up and see that I was there. While there were many surprised looks, as if they couldn’t quite believe someone was in the way, I did actually feel “seen.” Sometimes a smile, or a nod, or eye contact was exchanged. A few times, the other seemed irritated by my presence on the path, and once or twice a snide comment was made. But I kept walking and watching.
Something new began to happen when I did not step sideways. A different kind of dance ensued. Most of the time the other person gave way to me, by stepping aside so that I could continue. Sometimes we found a dance step in which we together made room for each other.
It was an eye-opening experience. It turned out other people did make room for me, or saw me, or found a way to engage with me so we could work out our respective journeys. It actually wasn’t always up to me to make room, to divert my path, to sidestep.
A teacher of mine once said that conflict is simply the experience of two people attempting to occupy the exact same spot at the exact same time – and their ultimate navigation of that moment. This makes conflict (confrontation, connection?) not so scary.
How many times have I sidestepped to make room for someone else’s progress? Far too many to count, I fear.
Although I do believe sharing the road is essential, when does being “the only one who steps aside” become self-reinforcing, part of one’s identity, and ultimately plays a big part in one’s journey actually becoming derailed? How many times does stepping aside for another lead to our defaulting to another path because the one we were on seems to get blocked or impeded by the presence of another?
It had come to feel like I was always tacking sideways to avoid confronting the “other.” I have to assume I had come to believe that a direct encounter would not go well and I took myself away from the possibility of a variety of ways of contact by avoiding first. And I was always interrupting where I was going.
I do want to share the road. I am now aware that sharing is not even possible if I do not hold my own presence there. And there is little chance I can cross to where I am called to go if I keep turning aside.
Katherine Smith, Phd