The most unexpected thing happened to me yesterday. I managed to help someone, but what surprised me the most was not necessarily that I had taken the time to help someone else, but rather the circumstances that allowed me to be put in that position. I had just picked up my bike from the repair shop and I was on my way back home. I ride a really old used bicycle and the chain had snapped days before after battling a particularly steep hill.
On my way back I decided to take a left turn on a street that I rarely pass through and I quickly noticed an elder lady waiving at me from behind an iron gate. I slowly came to a stop and I approached her because she seemed to want to tell me something. I as I came closer I could see that she felt a bit embarrassed and after several awkward seconds she asked me in a low voice if I could do her a favor. She needed someone to help her husband move an old TV to a second floor apartment above her house.
I quickly noticed a massive TV on the back of a parked pick-up truck right next to her and I knew that they would not be able to move that massive thing up the narrow flight of stairs that led to the apartment. I quickly agreed to help her out as her elderly husband came out of the house.
I was back on my bike in less than 10 minutes after they had both thanked me profusely for my help. I was still feeling the joy that comes from helping someone, and as I was riding away I started to reflect on what had just taken place. I quickly came to the conclusion that the biggest reason why I had found myself in that situation was precisely because I was riding my bicycle. I simply cannot imagine this situation happening if I would have been traveling in a automobile or a motorcycle. I almost certainly would have passed way too fast to hear or even notice her.
The more that I think back on this incident the more that I am certain that even if I would have noticed her I probably would not have been comfortable enough to stop and to step out of my car or to get off my motorcycle. A big reason for this attitude is that in my view motor vehicles tend to promote a constant sense of urgency and impatience on their drivers.
When one drives a motor vehicle on a daily basis there is a common tendency to want to move fast through the city. This is very often what leads us to adopt a very aggressive and impatient attitude when we are forced to slow down and are only able to move at the same speed of a pedestrian. We simply cannot bear the thought of not being able to make full use of all of the mechanical power at our disposal.
However, I do not think that an impatient attitude would have been the only reason why I probably would never have stopped to help that lady if I would have been traveling on an automobile or a motorcycle that morning. I think that there is also another very troubling consequence of the excessive use and dependance on motor vehicles. I am referring to their tendency to generate a sense of mistrust and insecurity in their drivers and passengers.
I am convinced that motor vehicles tend to put us in mindset were we mistrust and even fear others when we travel through a city. It is not secret that when one drives an automobile for example, one feels completely disconnected from both the city and the people that inhabit it. One feels safe and sheltered inside a protective bubble. In the case of motorcycle drivers I would argue that their capacity to quickly drive away from any apparent dangerous situation gives them an unfounded sense of security as well.
Reflection on this particular incident reminded me of the work done by the internationally renowned journalist Paul Salopek, who has already passed his 4th year of an almost decade long walk that will eventually take him from the Horn of Africa to Tierra del Fuego in the southern tip of the American Continent. His journey has taken him through some of the most conflict-ridden regions of the world, however, Salopek has continuously linked his personal safety to the speed in which he moves.
For Salopek the secret lies in his ability to be highly aware of the environment around him. Since he is walking the entire time he is able to talk to people, to truly listen to them, and in return he is warned well in advance of the possible dangers that may lie ahead. The secret to his safety clearly lies in the slowness with which he moves and in his capacity to remain connected with his environment, instead of a willingness to isolate himself or to be able to quickly pass through a certain place.
In a similar way, when I navigate through the city on my bicycle I feel much more connected to it, to the communities through which I pass, and to the people constitute the society in which I live. This is why I am not that surprised by the fact that I was able to notice that lady asking for assistance that morning, or that I felt a sufficient connection with her which made it easy for me to want to help.
To help a random person is a powerful experience. It energizes you, it cheers you up, and leaves you with a sense of joy for hours. However, for me the true beauty of this gesture is in the spontaneous and haphazard way in which it happened. I have no doubt that this most likely would never have happened if I would have chosen a different form of transportation on that morning.