Friday, February 4, 2011

Fear, insecurity, lack of self-confidence, and mindless harassment: My little personal story

I am very saddened and outraged by Claudia's experience in her recent post. I think I can understand at least some of what she has gone through, because I have been at the receiving end of similarly thoughtless and confused behavior. I hesitated to share my own experience, but I think that writing about and sharing experiences has a cathartic effect which is very healing. There are some important differences between my experience and Claudia's; for one, mine did not have the element of sexual harassment. But I think you will agree that there are also important similarities between my experience and hers, as you will soon see. 

First, a few historical facts about my life :-) I came to the United States in 2001 to go to grad school at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. I ended up staying there for 8 years (3 years to get my M.A., another 5 years to get my PhD). In the process, I made many wonderful friends and also encountered this wonderful thing called yoga. Cathrine and Christine are two such wonderful individuals whom I met during my time in Gainesville.

During my first year in Gainesville, I didn't have a car, so I biked or walked everywhere. On weekends, I would bike to the Starbucks in downtown Gainesville to do my work (I like doing my work in coffeeshops). It was about a mile from where I was living at the time. I usually stayed at the coffeeshop till closing time, which was around midnight. Yes, I used to be such a workaholic :-) I have many wonderful wonderful memories of this period. Because I didn't have a car, I basically stayed at the coffeeshop and in the downtown area for hours on end during the weekends. As a result, I got to know many people, and made many friends that way. I also have this theory that for many of us (including me at the present moment), our cars are not just vehicles to get us from point A to point B. They often function as "bubbles" or boundaries insulating us from a more direct visceral experience of our environment, adding to the isolation that many of us experience in contemporary society. When I didn't have a car, I had to engage the world around me much more immediately. I mean, if a particular situation or person in a particular place made me uncomfortable, I couldn't just get in my car and drive off. I had to engage the person or situation in a more direct and creative manner. I think that because of this, I was able to make friends much more readily. I don't know if any of this makes any sense to you; it's kind of abstract. Maybe those of you who live in New York City might understand this?

But not having this car-bubble around me also made me more vulnerable. For example, after the coffeeshop closed at midnight, I had to bike home. The route home took me through downtown Gainesville, which has many pubs, nightclubs and other such nightlife places. Being a college town, these places are packed full of rowdy, less-than-fully-sober college kids on the weekends. Which means that I have to bike extra carefully and slowly as I navigate through downtown, in order not to hit (or get hit) by people or vehicles. On more than a few occasions, a car would pass really close to me, and its occupants would cat-call or jeer at me as they passed me. This would cause me to start, and on a few occasions, I came dangerously close to losing control of my bicycle. And it's not just motorists who engage in such behavior. On one occasion, I passed a few guys approaching from the opposite direction on the sidewalk. They seemed to be engaged in conversation. But when I got close to them, one of them suddenly turned to me and yelled in my face. Again, I started, and came dangerously close to losing control of my bike.

I was really angry; actually, I get angry recounting these events even now. I couldn't understand how seemingly grownup people could exhibit such infantile behavior. I chalked it up to fear, insecurity and cowardice on their part. Fear and insecurity, because they didn't have much of a sense of self-worth, and had to prove their worthiness by putting down or harassing somebody in a vulnerable position. Cowardice, because they knew that they would get away with their actions, and there was nothing I could have done.

But this is not all there is. For a while, I kind of learnt to live with it as best as I could, until I got a car. I surmised that the only people in this country who would do such things were drunk college kids/frat guys who were simply confused about who they were or what they stood for. Well, I was wrong. A few months after I had gotten a car (and no longer had to endure the hazards of biking through downtown Gainesville on a Saturday night), I went out for dinner with two friends. They were a middle-aged couple. After dinner, we were driving through downtown. The guy, who was in his fifties, was at the wheel. He had had a few drinks, and was happily chatting with me as he drove (well, he probably shouldn't have been driving, but that's another story...). The driver's side window was down, and there was a pleasant spring breeze coming into the car. Then, suddenly, without warning, he turned his head toward the sidewalk and cat-called at somebody on the street. It happened so suddenly that I couldn't tell whether he was cat-calling at a man or woman, a pedestrian or a biker. In any case, a realization struck me at that very moment: It is not just college kids or drunk frat guys that mindlessly harass people in vulnerable positions. This is somebody in his fifties, for crying out loud!

So it seems that such mindless harassing behavior is truly universal and, in some weird sense, democratic in nature: It does not discriminate on the basis of national origin, sex, or age. Anybody anywhere can perpetrate such actions.

What is the moral of my story? Well, it would be too easy for me to invoke some yogic platitude ("Let us love all living beings, even those who mindlessly harass us, for they are the confused herd who must be led gently to see the light..."), but that seems disingenuous, given the gravity of this matter. So I'll leave it at this. May the Force be with you. And may our siddhis (especially superman vision) serve us well when we most need them.        


  1. Nobel, thanks for sharing your story, and that is indeed something that would scare me and make me angry, at least the first episode. As per the second, yes, people are confused...

    I do agree with you that there is a cathartic (spelling?) effect in sharing stories as long as it is in a safe environment. I feel your pain, pretty much so, but I am getting better, it was nice to feel the support of so many people.

    I guess all we can do is become more aware of our actions ourselves, and hope that others might at some point feel the same desire... might be a long journey. I for one am happy to be in the path of yoga, and to be your friend :-), or cyber friend?

  2. Hello Claudia, thanks. I'm glad you are feeling better. We do all we can to support one another :-) Yes, I agree that we should strive to be more aware of our actions ("Be the change you want to see").

    Thanks for being my friend/cyber-friend!