Creating Transformation in Practice (Part 2)

The Three Pillars

There are three pillars, or fundamental ways, that one creates transformation in practice. These three pillars are: 1) Protecting 2) Caring For 3) Empowering.  Let’s take a look at each one of these individually, starting with the pillar of Protection:

The most basic way that one can be transformative in the lives of others is to intervene on their behalf when they are in any kind of danger or need protection.  As said before, this requires that one be aware of the status of others at all times. This does not mean being intrusive or nosy (more on that in a future column). It simply means having the kind of ‘situational awareness’ that becomes habitual to those who practice it (such as doctors, teachers, soldiers, nurses, police officers, etc.). It also means that one has a sense of what are appropriate ways and times to take action. Lastly, it means that one has the commitment and fortitude to take that action when needed.

Here are some examples of putting the pillar of protection into practice (these are taken from my own experience – please send me your own examples, and I’ll use them in future columns):

A couple of years ago I was in the Middle East, doing research for my doctoral dissertation. I had just arrived in Jerusalem (via Jordan and Syria, coming from Lebanon). I got off the bus and was walking down Jaffa Street from the bus station dragging my luggage, along with some people I had made friends with on the journey. As I walked with them down the busy street, I noticed a young man and woman standing in the middle of the sidewalk. The man was very close to the young woman – ‘up in her face’ – is the term. He had grabbed her small face in his much larger hand and was squeezing it hard as he yelled angrily at her.

The moment I noticed this scene (which was being ignored by all of the other passersby), I turned and (still dragging my luggage) placed myself in between the man and the woman he was assaulting. I looked him in the eye and said to him loudly (but not angrily) – “That is not okay!”

The young man, startled, let go of the young woman’s face, turned to me and raised his fist at me as if to strike. I didn’t move, but simply looked him in the eye – not in a way that was provocative or disrespectful – but steadily and firmly. In that moment, his spell of fear over the young woman was broken. She began to tell him in no uncertain terms what she thought of the way he was treating her. I turned away from them and continued walking down the street.

The entire encounter had taken about thirty seconds – from the moment I first noticed it till my part in it was over. I don’t know what happened to the young woman, but I don’t think that she will ever forget that a) being physically and verbally assaulted that way was wrong – so much so that a total stranger would say so b) someone she did not know cared enough to intervene and place themselves between her and the person who was mistreating her and c) she did not have to put up with being treated that way, and in the end she was able to stick up for herself when she put her mind to it. Those thirty seconds would definitely have an impact on her life and perhaps even the young man’s as well (though he may just have moved on to someone else whom he could mistreat, nonetheless, it was made clear to him that one could not do that with total impunity – at least not in public. Perhaps he would have second thoughts for the future – perhaps not).

Another story:

My counseling internship took place in a hospital psychiatric unit. One of the patients in the unit was a woman somewhere in her mid-thirties to early forties. She was almost completely catatonic. She could not feed herself, bathe or dress herself, or even use the bathroom without assistance. This was a puzzle, as she had no previous psychiatric history, and seemed otherwise healthy. As part of my internship experience, I was able to sit in on the nursing staff meetings as they discussed the patients. When the patients were each discussed, the staff brought up this woman. They were not sure what to do with her – medication? Electroshock treatments (not used routinely – but could be useful in intractable cases)? Wait and watch? They spoke about possibly transferring her to a different hospital. Though it wasn’t necessarily my place to speak up, on a ‘gut level’ impulse I said to the staff – “someone should give that woman an MRI”. The meeting ended shortly after, and I left, forgetting about it entirely.

A couple of weeks later I was walking into the hospital to report for my internship duty. As I walked towards the entrance, I ran into the director of the entire psychiatric branch of the hospital.  “Good catch” he told me. I looked at him, uncomprehendingly – I had no idea what he was talking about. He said “we took that woman to get an MRI – she had encephalitis” (an inflammation of the brain lining due to a viral or bacterial infection – untreated it can be fatal). A moment, a whim. A woman’s life was saved. Not because of knowledge or expertise (the doctors and nurses certainly had much more knowledge and experience than I did), and not because of position or authority. It was simply because of a willingness to listen to one’s inner voice, and then acting on it – which in this case was no more than speaking a short sentence on behalf of a woman I did not know and had observed, briefly, only once. A moment of speaking up that for that woman made all of the difference.

And lastly:

Just before moving back to New York City, I was living in Washington, DC – in an apartment in the busy and rather fashionable Dupont Circle neighborhood. My building was very peaceful and quiet. Most of the inhabitants were young professionals working in the DC area – with a couple of old-timers who had lived in the building for many years. As I was a post-doctoral job hunter, my hours were a little more irregular than that of most of the professionals in the building, who as a rule went to bed early and got up early as well.

One quiet night, at about 2am I was still up –perhaps the only person awake in the entire sleeping building. As I read or watched TV, I noticed a very faint, strange smell. I could not tell what it was, or where it was coming from. It was too faint to identify – just a slightly unusual cast to the air.

Unwilling to simply ignore it, I went through my apartment and tried to identify where it was coming from – I could not – it was too subtle to tell where it originated. I opened the door to the hallway – nothing. I went to the window and opened it – nothing as well. I could have just gone to sleep – but I didn’t. I wasn’t willing to let it go – the simple feeling of an anomaly bothered me. I considered things for a moment. The smell was slightly stronger now. It was a bit acrid – I realized it was the smell of smoke. If it wasn’t coming from my apartment, and was not detectable in either the outside air or the hallway of the building, how could I be smelling it? I suddenly realized – it must be coming from the heating/AC vent. Sure enough – when I walked to the vent, I could smell the subtle smell a bit more clearly. It must have been coming from one of the apartments that shared the same venting system.

My first guess was that it was an apartment below mine. I tiptoed out into the quiet (completely smell-free) hallway and took the stairs down one flight to the second floor. I opened the door to the hallway. The second-floor hallway was filled with smoke. It was completely undetectable to the rest of the building because of the fireproof metal stairwell doors. I went downstairs to the ground floor and banged loudly on the door of the manager, waking him up from a sound sleep. He was none too pleased at being disturbed. “There’s a problem on the second floor” I told him. Together we went upstairs. The second-floor hallway was filled with smoke, but it was not coming from the hall.

We started going from door to door on that floor, banging loudly to wake up the residents. One by one they sleepily poked their heads out, or yelled at us that all was fine (i.e., ‘leave us alone’). Only one apartment did not respond – the one situated directly below mine. Using his master-key, the manager opened the door – thick grey smoke came billowing out. The door was hooked on a chain – meaning that someone was inside. He looked at me questioningly – ‘break it’, I told him. He put his shoulder to the chain and broke the door open.

Inside, the young guy who lived there was fast asleep – he had taken a sleeping pill or some other kind of drug and was completely out. The smoke was coming from something burning in his kitchen. It was so thick that one could not see. Given that most deaths in fires are due to smoke inhalation, this fellow had about an hour left, perhaps less, before all of the oxygen in his small apartment was gone.  The manager roused him with difficulty, opened the windows and the balcony door. Danger averted. A moment of noticing, a moment of investigating, a willingness to take action, a life saved. I went upstairs and went to sleep.

None of these examples (or the subway platform or little toddler stories from the previous column) required heroic action. They did not require superhuman strength; they did not require special expertise or a position of authority. All that they required was the willingness to care, to notice, to figure out what was going on (if necessary) and to take action. Sometimes very modest action – a word, a step, a knock, a gesture… a hand. Things that could change a life. Things that could save a life.

What will be your stories of protection? Will you hear the cry on the street late at night? Will you notice when someone is in danger? Will you investigate when a situation simply does not make sense – when something does not seem to fit? Will you see?

More stories of protection are coming to mind as I write this. I’ll tell a couple more of them in the next column.

Next Column: Creating Transformation in Practice III – The Pillar of Protection, continued:

Miriam E. Mendelson, PhD, is the Director of the Center for Transformative Development, Counseling, Consulting and Mediation and is available for speaking engagements, individual and family counseling and business consultation. Click here for a complete list of all Miriam Mendelson’s articles. Column feedback and questions are welcome:
  1. Having the courage to step in where others fear to tread is a delicate call. The older I get the more I realize that many people do not want and even deeply resent “interference.” These are great examples of your own experiences that turned out well. I have a long list of experiences that did not turn out well, and I’m assuming you do, too. These days, I generally hesitate more than I did in the past, which is not necessarily a good thing, just a learned behavior. Your courage is inspiring.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Mia. Your instincts are correct. If you are feeling like intervention is not a good idea – then, for you, it is not. This is very much a ‘gut call’. It depends very heavily on what kind of vibes one gives out in a particular situation. If one is not sure of how to approach a situation constructively, or whether it is a situation that should be approaoched at all, then caution is prudent. However, keep in mind that there are often ways to intervene that don’t directly involve one’s own self at all – for example, calling the police when their is any concern or suspicion of danger to someone else. In future columns (and thanks for the reminder) I intend to speak about how one knows when a situation ‘has your name on it’ and what are ways to set proper boundaries against risk and over-interference (remember, it’s about making a difference, not ‘controlling the world’). Thanks again for sharing, and perhaps you will find that there are ways that you can make a difference in the lives of others without evoking a negative response – I hope so.

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