Two weeks ago today I fell off the high step during my aerobics class. Distracted by other thoughts, I miscalculated the height of the step and came down hard on an inverted ankle. It wasn’t pretty. Within seconds my ankle ballooned to three times its normal size and I was immobilized.
While the aerobics instructor tried to be kind, she was obviously annoyed that my lack of coordination had interrupted her class. Some of the other class members were patient, but most made it clear that my sprawled, sweaty self impaired their full participation in the rather involved choreography. Just when I had decided to drag myself to the door to get out of everybody’s way, one of the personal trainers on staff appeared and carried me down the steep flight of stairs to the lobby where he called 911.
As I waited, the club managers rounded up witnesses, asking for written descriptions of what had happened in case of litigation. Meanwhile, a rather heated argument began between another of the personal trainers and an in-house nurse about whether or not the ankle should be wrapped. In another corner a couple of muscle-bound gym regulars started taking bets about whether my ankle was broken and if so just how bad it might be. One of them berated me for taking off my shoe telling me that anyone who knows anything knows not to do that. Since it was the nurse who’d taken off my shoe, I just smiled dumbly and nodded.
To make matters worse, a police officer, who introduced herself as the “advance team,” showed up to drill me, “Are you a Massachusetts resident?” she asked. “Well, no,” I tried to explain. “Are you currently employed in Massachusetts?” she barreled right ahead. “Uh, no, but why is this necessary? ” I asked. Was this some sort of reality show stunt? I hurt my ankle, I didn’t rob a bank! “Just answer the questions, ma’am,” she said. And so I did. I sat there, self-conscious in my damp gym clothes, humiliated, and surrounded by dozens of staring eyes as I tried not to howl in pain. Any remaining hope I might still have had for a graceful exit evaporated when the ambulance arrived a few minutes later, blaring sirens and all. As the EMT guy wrapped my ankle, he asked if there was someone he could call for me.
I had been largely successful in my efforts up to that point to keep my composure during the chaos, but his question made me feel pathetic. “No,” I whispered. “There isn’t anyone to call.” He asked me again, “certainly there’s someone who will be worried if you don’t call.” Nope, no one at home who might be worried and no one to call. Though I have a big family, none of them live in New England. My closest friends live hours away as do my rarely-seen home and visiting teachers. I certainly wasn’t going to call any of them to come unnecessarily from so far away. “No, no thank you. I’m alright,” I said. But, I wasn’t alright. I was miserable and in pain and I was going to have to be miserable and in pain by myself.
All of a sudden a woman I’d never met before was at my side. She introduced herself as Donna and said, “I was right behind you in class and saw you fall, you poor thing. I’m going to the hospital with you, honey. It’s going to be alright.” And because she said so, I believed her.
Donna followed the ambulance to the hospital and helped me check in when I arrived. She wheeled me around the ER, found ice for my ankle, and told jokes to make me laugh during the long hours of waiting. She bought me sodas, showed me pictures of her kids, sat with me while they took X-rays, and later helped me with my crutches. When I couldn’t do it myself, she even helped me put my stinky old gym sock on again so my foot wouldn’t be exposed when I hobbled outside and into her car which was waiting to take me safely home.
Later that night, after spending almost six hours as the grateful recipient of a stranger’s service, I couldn’t help but wonder, had the situation been reversed and she had fallen before my eyes, would I have been the one to notice, to go and sit with a stranger when she was hurt? Were we in different positions would I have made myself a friend to the friendless and been the one to bless another’s life? Would it have been me?
Recently, Adam reminded us that despite our sincerest commitments to virtue, we can’t be sure how we might respond to every situation. Will we respond with service, love, even self-sacrifice when the chips are down? It is a meek acknowledgment of mortal frailty to admit that we can’t be certain. We see an example of this in one of the most poignant of all passages in scripture. As Jesus sat with the twelve immediately prior to the great sacrifice He would make on their (and our) behalf, He revealed that one of them would betray him. Although such a possibility would have grieved them deeply even to consider (think how Peter later zealously declares that he will never be offended at Christ) in a moment of contrite clarity, each ask, “Lord, is it I?” (Matt 26:22)
Adam’s recent post and the passage from Matthew point to the courage necessary to face the possibility that we might fail to achieve our highest aspirations, that in that darkest moment we might turn out to be someone other than we thought we were. These examples point to the need for grace in those darkest hours. If the ship were going down into the black abyss I have no doubt that my natural survival instincts may override my better qualities, requiring an act of grace-infused heroism to overcome. However, such moments are rarely, if ever, experienced by most of us. I may never have the opportunity to rise to the heights of heroism in sacrificing my life by drowning in the deep for another. But, grace is required in less dark hours too. What I do have, almost on a daily basis, is the opportunity to overcome self-interest and live a life of service, to learn to be like Donna for wounded others.
Even with that much more muted goal, I remain uncertain. I’m left wondering whether I would always be the one who would lift the fallen stranger. While honesty constrains me to admit potential failure even in this intention, were the situation reversed, I hope it would be me.