Most elevator rides vanish from memory because they are non-events, this one lingered. The opening events of the convention had concluded so Mary and I were headed to our shared room on the 9th floor. With us in the small space were half a dozen other people bound for some floor beyond ours. At six the doors opened and a teenaged girl stumbled into the elevator with a gasp that could have been the intake of breath after uproarious laughter or might have been the end of a sob. We all stepped back to make room for her, as one does on an elevator. She turned and leaned into a corner, her face was red with tears and she continued to give shuddering gasps.
Usually the sight of someone crying fills me with sympathy, I reach out to help unless the situation is already under control. Yet something in this young woman’s face declared “Look how distraught I am. Pay attention to me.” The girl gasped again and snot blew out of her nose, trailing down her face. She turned to the elevator in general and said “Are any of you going to Great America?” This reference to the amusement park a few blocks away made me wonder if she’d been frightened by a ride, but surely fright would have worn off before she finished the trek to our hotel and up to the 6th floor. No one in the elevator answered right away. None of us moved and yet somehow it felt as if all of us had taken a step back from the overwrought emotion on display.
I’d barely had time to process the young woman’s behavior and my reaction to it when the elevator doors opened again. Floor 9. I hesitated for just a moment before the “it’s my floor I must get off” instinct kicked in. Another woman had leaned toward the girl, obviously intending to help. Her motion triggered the “situation is handled” circuit in my brain. Mary and I stepped off the elevator and the doors concealed the unfolding drama from our eyes.
“I’m a little glad not to be dragged into that.” I said. Mary agreed. Yet thoughts of that girl resurfaced throughout the weekend. Because I walked away I would never know if her drama was the over-reaction of a young person or if she was in true distress. Her behaviors were so out-of-context from everything else. Her entrance was so over-the-top that My brain had to circle through suspicion before I could engage sympathy on her behalf. She was well dressed and healthy. She had no physical injuries. In some ways her behavior seemed like an act, part of a scam. All of these factors bounced around in my brain, but our exit arrived before I had enough data to figure out how I should feel about her.
On the final morning of the convention I was ambushed by an unexpected pocket of sadness. I found myself discussing with Mary my homesickness for California. It was an odd homesickness, because I’ve visited my native state many times and never felt it before. Mary listened kindly as I sorted my thoughts out loud and offered tissues when the conversational paths made my eyes leak.
“I’m sorry.” I said as I wiped my eyes and blew my nose.
“Why do people apologize for showing honest emotion?” Mary mused in a quiet voice which made clear to me that she thought no less of me for my tears. Before I could answer her question, Mary found the answer for herself. “Because we don’t want to be the girl on the elevator.”
Displays of emotion are hard to ignore. We’re wired to pay attention to them, to react. The emotions of others either draw us in or repulse us. I wanted to defend myself from the emotions of the girl on the elevator. Whatever she was feeling was strong, like an undertow with the power to pull a swimmer out to sea. I am not surprised that I reacted by stepping out. Social convention says that we only reach out to strangers when we are truly desperate, that level of desperation was out of place in a hotel elevator. If the girl had stepped on the elevator calmly, if she had been trying to hide her tears, I would have felt differently about our encounter. It would have demonstrated a level of rationality which would have increase my belief that she really needed help. How odd it is of me to be more ready to help someone who has a measure of control rather than one who displays open desperation.
I wish I had better or more solid conclusions to draw from this. All I have are observations about how easy it is to decide to step out of someone else’s crisis.