He stumbled and almost fell. That’s when I was sure. I was waiting to cross a busy street in downtown Los Angeles, when a tall man walked up. I noticed him, because I am always eyes-up in the city and I make it my business to notice people. Then I noticed his white cane. Oh, he’s blind! I put myself in standby, ready to help him out, but mostly to avoid being his obstacle. He had headphones on, and he was murmuring to himself. Adaptive tech?
This is when I let my brain cancel out my intuition.
I’ve known many differently abled people over the years. What I’ve learned is that they’ll generally ask for help when they need it, and that they can find it annoying when people fawn and fret over them. I’ve also had some incredibly interesting conversations about adaptive technology and the way that smartphones have revolutionized the world for people who are not fully sighted. Basically I took one look at the headphones, saw the man’s mouth moving, and assumed he was either listening to GPS instructions, talking to an online assistant, repeating some memorized directions, or counting his steps. Alrighty then! Robots to the rescue!
Then the light changed, and things got real.
The man fumbled his footing and looked really nervous. I slowed down and hung to the side, watching to make sure he was okay. It quickly became clear that he was scared, using his cane and making progress in the right direction, but flinching and wobbling.
Quite frankly, if you’ve been anywhere near Pershing Square on a weekday around evening rush hour, and traffic was rushing by, you’d be scared, too. California is well above the national average in pedestrian fatalities.
I continued to hover about a yard off to the side, still second-guessing myself, wanting to be respectful and dithering, dithering.
Then the man just... froze. He just froze in the middle of the crosswalk.
Nine seconds left.
“We’ve got time,” I called out. “You’re okay.”
He moved forward again, whimpering, his cane going side to side like a windshield wiper.
“You’ve got it.”
He was only two yards away.
“The curb is right there. You got it.”
As soon as that white cane tapped the curb, the man sighed in relief. He stepped up about as gracefully as he had stepped down, looking about like I would feel if I were pulling myself out of a river with an alligator in it. He thanked me and we went our separate ways.
I wanted to kneel in the street and cry. HOW?
How can that poor guy do his life? He obviously hasn’t been blind for very long, and he’s my age. How does he keep his clothes and shoes so dazzlingly clean? How does he make his lunch? Why was he by himself? Where was he going?
Was this ever going to get any easier?
I don’t tell this story to make myself look good in some way. On the contrary. I did the bare freaking minimum at the last rational moment. What kind of a jerk would leave a blind man standing in the middle of traffic? I mean, sure, I’ve been a jerk in my lifetime, but I’m not that far gone.
I don’t even tell this story because I have an axe to grind. That axe: It makes no sense to share every single moment of annoyance and frustration, but then keep our “good deeds” secret. It is a wrong thought. It gives an objectively false image of the way the world works. We have it upside down. We should speak of altruism routinely and irritation rarely. Why is it egotistical to say, yeah, I gave a measly ten dollars to charity, yet somehow NOT egotistical to go on and on about The Rude Waiter and The Dish I Sent Back and The Lousy Customer Service? I’d rather portray myself as someone who serves (poorly, clumsily, infrequently) than as someone with exalted expectations of BEING served. But I digress.
The reason I tell the story about the frightened blind man is that it felt like an allegory.
The way we feel when we try new things? That’s just an emotion. When the blind gentleman dared to walk by himself and try to cross that busy street alone - THAT is true fear. THAT is the real Place of Uncertainty. THAT guy knows what it’s like to have no idea what lies before him. He’s putting his life on the line just to run some errands. What we have, well, put that on a scale of one to ten.
The other thing?
There was someone right there, waiting and watching. There was at least one person within arm’s reach, practically begging for a single word, the smallest gesture, anything at all that passed for a request for help. All he ever had to do was ask. Even though he didn’t - I wouldn’t have let him fall. I wouldn’t have let him stand there in traffic. I would have grabbed him if I had to. I would have let him use my phone, ordered him a Lyft, or basically anything he needed. What was so challenging for him was trivial for me, not because I’m special but just because I could see what he couldn’t.
It’s the same with any change.
Whenever you want to do something scary and new, chances are really high that someone else has done it. Someone nearby is probably doing whatever it is on a routine basis. That person may not be at mastery level, may not be a great teacher, may not be a professional. Still, that person can see at least the next few steps on the path. All you have to do is speak up, and that person will appear practically out of nowhere to help you over at least a few yards.
Why do we do it? We push ourselves because that’s the only way to live in the world. We do it because it’s the only way to adapt and survive. Whether we choose it or not, challenge is always coming for us. We step off into the unknown, step after step after step.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.