When I was twelve years old a guy grabbed me on my way to ballet class.
I was walking in the same door I’d walked through for years on West 83rd Street, with my hair in a bun, and my tights and leotard under my jeans, and this young guy walked in ahead of me. The door opened onto a narrow, steep staircase. At the top of the stairs to the right was the ballet studio. I could hear the piano. Even at twelve, or maybe because I was still so young, I had an intuition. I remember the feeling of something being off, and I probably did exactly what he’d hoped I would do. I passed him on the right and started racing up the stairs. But he grabbed me from behind and put one hand over my mouth, and another between my legs and asked me not to move. He said he wasn’t going to hurt me. For a minute I froze. Panicked with a taste like tin in my mouth. Fear undiluted. His hand over my mouth as he started fumbling with his jeans, and all I heard, like an explosion inside my head was, “NO.” Not that I understood exactly what he was trying to do, just that animal part of me, that part knew. And then I bit his hand, and screamed and threw my elbow into his ribs as hard as I could.
He let me go immediately. I don’t believe he expected a fight. I faced him, still screaming, tears and adrenaline and a racing heart, and backed up the stairs. Right hand, right foot, left hand, left foot, fast. I remember his face, and I remember being shocked that he looked as terrified as I felt. Eyes wide so I could see more white than anything. He took off down the stairs and when I saw he was out the door, I turned and raced/crawled up the remainder of the staircase as fast as I could. I busted into the office, hysterical, unable to speak, but the guys there, the dancers, they knew. I just pointed and they took off, and three girls who were in the company ran to me and held me. The dancers weren’t able to catch up to the guy, and I don’t know what happened to him.
I share this with you because it exists in this world, and because it happened. Clearly, it could have been a lot worse. I hope it was never worse for someone else who didn’t scream, or couldn’t fight. And I hope he found the help he desperately needed. I believe if someone had photographed my face and his as we stared at each other, they would have looked incredibly similar. I believe he was as shocked and sorry about what he’d done as I was. He looked like an animal with his leg caught in a trap. There are people who are deeply troubled, who need help but don’t get it. Because they fall through the cracks. Or are able to hide their pain from the people closest to them. Or maybe those people are in denial. I don’t know what his story was, but I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t a good one.
Compassion is a funny thing. It’s easy to have it for people who are close to our own experience. If we relate, if we get it, we’re easily able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
When the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary happened, my son was in first grade. My daughter was in preschool. My heart broke for those parents. I remember opening my closet door a few days later, and seeing all the wrapped Christmas presents, and realizing forty parents in Connecticut probably had wrapped gifts in their closets, too, and no one to open them Christmas Day. I didn’t sleep well for two months. But it’s a lot harder to have compassion for the shooter. You have to work to do that. Or I did, anyway. Obviously he wasn’t well. It doesn’t sound like his mother was, either. Of course you want to be angry, point fingers, lay blame. But that never gets us far.
The further away from what we understand, the harder it is to imagine how it would be to live life that way, and the less likely we are to try to get it. The deeper the divide, the greater the likelihood for “us” vs. “them,” the more we continue as we have been.
The less peace for our children to enjoy. As a mom of two young children, I can empathize with people who fall through the cracks, but I don’t want them anywhere near my kids. Or yours. I can hope the guy in the stairwell got help, and I can also recognize how terrified I was, and how that experience shaped me. The more we contract against our experience, the more we suffer and the less we understand.
Once on my way home from school, I saw a group of kids standing around a bucket. One of them had a broom handle, and he was stabbing it into the bucket again and again. I don’t know why, but I drew closer. I heard something squealing. I got close enough to peer over the edge, close enough to brush elbows with a couple of kids I didn’t know, all of them a lot bigger than I was, to see that it was a little mouse, running in circles. I don’t know why that kid was trying to crush it with the end of a broom handle. But I wonder what was happening in his house.
I really don’t believe we come into the world full of hate and rage. Those are things we learn sometimes. I yelled at the kid to stop, and for whatever reason, he did, and everyone took off. I could see the mouse’s heart beating from where I stood. I tipped the bucket on its side and watched the mouse take off. We all know that feeling, right? Of being terrified, of running in circles, of feeling like things are happening to us and we can’t comprehend why?
I think most people can look around at the world today and agree that it could be a much more peaceful and loving place. But we’re never going to change other people, or save them.
The only thing over which we have any real influence, is the world that exists within us.
If you’re at war with yourself, if your inner voice is critical and unrelenting, that’s something you can work on. If you’re impatient and you tend toward perfectionism, that’s something you can change, if you avail yourself of some tools. And that’s really the only way we change the world around us. I’m not suggesting you have to have compassion for people who suffer from mental illness and disorders that make them want to harm children. That would be advanced compassion. We can always condemn a person’s actions without condemning the person himself. We can leave a little space for not knowing someone’s history. We can leave a little space for the possibility of change, of healing, of redemption. In less extreme examples, maybe we could all try to be a little more patient and understanding with each other, and especially with those people who are difficult to deal with. Often, the most challenging people in our lives can also be our best teachers, because they give us a chance to practice patience. To be less reactive, to pause and breathe, to consider how we want to respond. We can always choose the way we respond to what we’re given. That’s another thing that falls under the umbrella of things we can control.
This world can be incredibly violent, but it can also be achingly beautiful. If you want to be awake, you have to hold it all.
I’m not a fan of the amazing pressure to be positive every waking minute of the day. Not everything is positive and light. Some things will rip your heart right out of your body with no warning and no logic. People who demand that you be light every minute are running from their own shadow, and it’s only a matter of time before it bites them in the ass. Sometimes people say things like, “our thoughts create our experience.” My thoughts did not create that experience in the stairwell, it was completely outside my frame of reference. There are people who would point to karma, or God’s plan, or everything happening for a reason. I don’t know about any of that for sure, and neither does anyone else. What I do know is that sometimes horrendous things happen to beautiful people. Maybe someday it will all make sense and maybe not. Until then, the truth is we live in a world with darkness, and incredible light. To deny one is to forsake the other.
It’s not about being positive, it’s about being authentic. Open. Real, raw, vulnerable.
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It’s about understanding sometimes you will be so scared out of your mind you’ll crawl up a staircase backwards, not even fully knowing what you’re racing from. And sometimes you’ll be blinded and amazed by all the beauty, all the gifts you’ve been given, the taste of gratitude like sugarcane in your mouth, and the feeling of sunlight like it was poured directly into your heart.
Don’t worry about being positive. Just be awake. Hold it all.
Ally Hamilton is a Santa Monica-based yoga teacher, writer and life coach, who streams online yoga classes all over the world. She’s the co-creator of YogisAnonymous.com, which has been featured in The New York Times, Yoga Journal, Self Magazine, Shape Magazine and The Wall Street Journal. She’s a regular contributor for The Huffington Post, a wellness expert at MindBodyGreen, and writes an almost-daily blog. She’s the mama of two amazing kids and one energetic Labradoodle. She’s excited about her first book, “Sex, Love and Yoga: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times” due from Llewellyn Worldwide in 2016. You can follow her on Twitter or FB.
Image courtesy of Ales Krivec.