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One City

The train clamored on down past 86th Street. The weather had finally started to clear up after a long stint of rainy days and yet I had chosen to take the subway rather than the more scenic bus to get home from work.

My mind was there, and yet it elsewhere – half listening to my coworker talk about her day, half planning what I’d make myself for dinner when I got home. When the young man sitting next to us gasped sharply and crumpled onto the grimy floor of the subway car, my brain jolted back to the present moment. It was like the opening scene of an episode of House.

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This young man’s body began to convulse violently. Oh my God, he’s having a seizure, I realized, without ever having seen a seizure before except on TV. When you see someone have a seizure in the movies or a TV show, you don’t think about what it’s actually like. In real life it’s more than just a little exciting jolt of excited energy in your chest, a widening of pupils…

My response was involuntary: I just stood up. I gripped the pole next to me and stood up. Like standing up could cause the earth to stop spinning forward. I watched. I froze. I did not know what to do, so I did nothing. Do something. DO SOMETHING! my mind screamed.

Part of me wanted to dash over and help the woman he was with to cradle his head, but I didn’t do that. Some other crazy guy poured water on the young man’s head – I wanted to shoo him away. I didn’t do that either. With all the hysteria about swine flu, I wanted to bolt to the other end of the subway car (what if he’s contagious?). I didn’t do that either. I stood there in my blue jacket and tried to think. I came up with nothing.

Everything about my response was motivated by fear. I was afraid of what I might do or what might be done to me. Maybe I’d make the seizure worse somehow. Maybe the crazy guy pouring the water would smack me if I interfered. Maybe I could get sick and have a seizure, too. My mind was clouded by fear, and my joints and muscles were stiff. I could not think of the simplest, most helpful thing to do.

My friend from work calmly stood up and walked to the emergency call button by the door of the subway car, pressed it, told the conductor that a man was having a seizure in our car, and the train was stopped at the next station. Whoa. That was amazing, I thought to myself. Thankfully the young man was conscious and alert and had stopped seizing by the time the paramedics came.

I ride the subway every single day and I never noticed that emergency button. Shame on me. Bad New Yorker. Bad! I scolded myself. Probably I did notice but my mind never took note of it as something important that people actually use. It’s always been just another part of the furniture of the transportation system, like a decorative wall hanging. .

It got me thinking, not just about the effect that fear can have on you, but about awareness. Is awareness about noticing all things (or at least important things) in your surroundings? Is a fully enlightened being simply aware of all of the details around him or her?

I’m a pretty cerebral person sometimes, and I guess it takes something like this to remind me that not only is it important to be mindful of your emotions and responses and the things going on internally, but also to be equally mindful of the makings of the external world. Like knowing where the emergency buttons are.

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