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"Getting Involved" Successfully

I recently had an opportunity to put RC theory into practice in the wide world.

I was traveling alone by bus back to New York City after a workshop. At one stop a man and young girl boarded the bus. The man seemed either ill or drunk. He was slurring his words and being held upright by the girl. He paused at the driver's seat, then, without paying, stumbled down the aisle, pulling the girl with him. The two of them sat right behind me, and the bus pulled away. The girl repeatedly told the man that he must pay the driver. After several minutes the driver stopped the bus at the side of the highway and went back to the man to request payment. The girl explained to the man that he needed to pay the driver, and he did. The driver then returned to his seat, and the bus continued. The passengers were staring at the man and girl.

I soon realized they were father and daughter, as the girl kept referring to the man as Dad. I couldn't help but hear their conversation, which included the father repeatedly asking his daughter for a kiss. The girl began pleading that she wanted to go home, that she did not want to go to New York City with him. The father's tone became loud and angry. I sensed the girl was getting frightened. She kept saying, "Leave me alone. You're sick." The father began to shove her, saying she was no good. I glanced around to see what kind of attention was available on the bus and concluded there wasn't much, although a woman in a seat across the aisle acknowledged my glance with a look that I interpreted to mean, "It's too bad for that poor little girl that her drunk father is doing this to her."

The situation seemed to be escalating. I found myself thinking that the father was likely a working-class immigrant (he was speaking a mix of Spanish and English) who worked hard for little pay and was probably the target of racism, classism, and men's oppression.

I wanted to help, but I felt I shouldn't butt into* other people's business. It felt wrong to interfere with a father and daughter. I was also afraid of being harmed by the man and of being embarrassed if he shouted at me to mind my own business.

Then I had a clear mental image of my RC teacher, Ken Feldman, talking about the importance of putting RC into practice in the wide world. I made the decision to get involved, and began to sweat.

I was working against my own distress. I felt pulled to demand threateningly that the drunk man leave the girl alone, pulled to publicly scold and chastise him for being drunk and treating his daughter this way, pulled to be the hero.

I also knew that that approach would be, at best, a short-term solution and, at worst, could lead to a violent encounter. Thanks to the work I had done in RC, I figured out a better way. I turned around, looked right into the father's eyes (trying to be as vulnerable and non-threatening as possible), smiled at him, and relaxedly said, "Hi. How are you?" Having participated in RC family work, I understood the importance of being an ally to the parent and not just the daughter. I also thought that if I first turned to the daughter and asked if she was okay, the father was more likely to get "upset." Besides, I wasn't just going after the daughter; I wanted to reach both of them.

The father took me in. He seemed to be assessing whether I was friend or foe, whether I was for real. As I looked into his eyes, I could smell the strong scent of alcohol and saw a bottle in his pocket. I pushed in my mind to think of how good this man was, how hard his life must have been for him to be so drunk, and how much he must have loved his daughter. I think he could tell that I was loving him at that moment. Tears began to roll down from his eyes as he started to tell me his story.

He said he wanted to bring his daughter to the mall to buy her some clothes, that he loved her very much, and that he worked hard to have the money to buy her clothes. When I told him I could see what a good man he was, his daughter began to cry as well. Perhaps it was a contradiction to the shame and embarrassment she may have been feeling to have a person see how good her father was. When I told him I could see how much he loved his daughter, they both cried harder. Then I felt it was safe to turn my attention to the daughter and ask how she was doing. She said she was okay, that she was thirteen years old, and that she wanted to go home. She explained that her parents had split up. She was her father's only child and lived with her mother and her mother's boyfriend and their children. She wanted to get off the bus, call her mother, and have her pick her up.

Soon the bus approached the stop where the girl wanted to get off (New York City was another hour away). There wasn't much time. I told the father I could see that he was drunk, that this did not make him bad, but that it probably didn't make sense for him to be with his daughter in New York City while he was so drunk. I suggested that what his daughter really wanted was him, not money or gifts, and that the greatest gift he could give her was all of him. More tears. He seemed to understand this and agreed that the girl should go home with her mother.

Both the father and daughter thanked me as they got off the bus.

After they left, I felt I understood for the first time what is meant by "pushing one's thinking." This had been one of the most valuable and challenging things I had done in my life. I felt full from being able to be a resource to others.

In that one incident I was able to put into practice what I'd learned in RC about men's oppression, working-class oppression, young people's oppression, and family work.

I would like to fill my life with more challenges like this.

Adley Gartenstein
New York, New York, USA *Butt into means intrude into.


Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00