Yesterday, for the twentieth time since the snow fell this winter, I encountered angels. Genuine Snow Angels.
I had been riding home from my favourite neighbourhood coffee shop and was trying to cross from a sidewalk with a big ridge of snow at the end of it onto an intersection when I found myself stuck in thick snow, the wheels of Sophie (my powerchair) spinning desperately.
I rammed and pushed Sophie’s joystick back and forth at full throttle in a fruitless attempt to budgethe chair even a little and unjam the wheels, but there was no hope. Sophie wasn’t budging. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Within minutes, two different people driving by stopped their vehicles, rolled down their windows and asked if I needed help. When I nodded yes, they leaped out of their trucks, came up behind me, gave me a bit of a push— and voila! I was freed from my icy trap! Tears almost came to my eyes as I thanked these angels from my heart, before rolling on my way towards home.
When you live in a winter city that averages 124 cm of yearly snowfall and when you go riding around your neighbourhood on a powerchair almost daily, getting stuck in the snow, unfortunately, is a part of life. Especially when your chair (like Sophie) is made for the Californian climate. (Truly, Sophie is more suited to rides down palm tree-dotted streets laden with people in shorts and bikinis, then the bone-chilling rides I take her on over snow-swept streets while I’m dressed in so many layers I could be mistaken for the Abominable Snow Woman).
Sure, I could stay home and not go riding, that would be the prudent thing to do. I did that last year on the advice of Sophie’s Californian distributor (who laughed hysterically when asked how he thought Sophie would handle riding in Edmonton weather). But it was spirit and soul-crushing to be trapped in my home for eight straight months, only leaving my home once or twice a week when my family or driver could take me out in our van. I couldn’t bear another winter like that.
And so, I’ve chosen to go on little rides around my neighbourhood almost every day, even in weather colder than minus 30 and even when it is snowing. I don’t have the stamina to go too far, but even just a short ride brightens my spirit and makes me feel like someone who has a part in this world (versus someone shut up and cloistered in her home).
And, while I’ve gotten stuck 20 times (and counting) this winter, what has amazed me—what has touched my spirit to an incredibly deep level—is the generosity I’ve encountered in each “angel” who has stopped their vehicle and pushed me out, always with a smile on his or her face. This help has almost always happened within one to two minutes of me getting stuck; almost without exception the first person to drive by has stopped to help me.
There have been only two notable times that this did not happen, where help did not arrive in a minute or two. Once was on a dark November evening when I was riding up a small hill on a deserted and quiet street where no one else was around save the owls in the trees and the small animals in their boroughs. I was riding to meet Eric on his nightly walk home from work when I got my wheels stuck in thick snow: thank goodness for modern technology as I was able to text Eric my location and he came right to me.
The other time I didn’t have someone stop within a minute or so and help occurred last week. This time, I discovered what it is like to experience the crowd or bystander effect. (According to Wikipedia, “The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. Several factors contribute to the bystander effect, including ambiguity, cohesiveness and diffusion of responsibility.”)
Until that day last week, I had always prior gotten stuck on the small side streets near my home- where people drive by maybe every minute or so. When someone would drive by and see me stuck they without exception offered to help.
But this time, I was stuck in snow on the sidewalk of a semi-busy street. As I sat there, jamming my joystick and not moving, over 20 or more cars drove by per minute. Many minutes went by. Dozens and dozens of cars drove by. No one stopped. No one made eye contact.
Now, no one needed to stop. I’m the one who assumes the risk of getting stuck when I choose to go out riding. But I sure am grateful for those who do stop.
A long time went by and I was near tears when a young mom with a little boy saw me and stopped to help. Within seconds she’d pushed me out. After telling her I was so grateful, I was on my way.
Unfortunately, three minutes after she left, I encountered a part of the sidewalk that a homeowner hadn’t shoveled. Bam- for the second time on that ride I was once again stuck alongside that same road. I again waited for a long time on that very cold day, while dozens and dozens of vehicles again drove on by. I waved when I saw a police car and then two peace officer trucks and a few big city of Edmonton trucks. But they paid me no notice. It was a silver-haired middle-aged man in a white truck who finally stopped. I told him he was my angel.
When I got home and finally warmed up, I began to think about the crowd bystander effect. The term was coined in the 1960’s after a famously sad case about a young woman who was murdered in New York City. A large number of neighbours saw her be attacked, but no one called the police because each neighbour thought someone else would do it.
It reminds me of what happened in World War Two. While there were many notable attempts by ordinary citizens to hide Jewish people and help them escape, nonetheless over six million people, most of them Jewish, were still killed by the Nazi regime. Many many bystanders stood by while millions suffered and died. In that time, it would have been much easier to keep one’s head down and follow the crowd, to not step up and help a fellow person in need.
I often wonder whether if I had lived back in that time if I would have had the courage to try to save another person at risk to my own safety and life. At risk to my family’s lives. I don’t know if I would have, but I hope I would have found the courage to do the right thing.
We may not be living in the circumstances that swept through Europe over seventy years ago, but there are still so many opportunities for us to step forward and love well those people around us. To make a difference, be it big or small.
We all have opportunities in our daily lives to step out and make a difference to another’s life. We have the opportunity to hold the door for the person coming behind us into Starbucks. To open our eyes and see the person walking down the street towards us- and smile at them. We have the opportunity to get to know the elderly woman living on our street who may be feeling very alone. We have the opportunity to visit our elderly relatives in care homes, to send an encouraging message on social media to a young relative, to do all we can to make sure that those God brings across our pathways know that we deeply love them.
Sometimes we have to look beyond an enormous crowd and step directly into another’s path to make a difference and change lives.
For example, did you know there are over half a million foster care children who could be adopted in the United States and over thirty thousand in Canada? These children go to bed each night without knowing the love, support, and security of a forever family. Most will statistically not be adopted.
If any one of us saw a little child running in traffic alone, I believe we would all stop our vehicles and dash to save that one child. Even at great risk to our own safety. But when it is an enormous crowd of children in foster care somehow things change. Or, when there is a block full of neighbours that are strangers, it’s hard to be the person who befriends the lonely person behind a house’s walls. When there is a city full of homeless people, it can be hard to acknowledge as a human being each person who stops us to ask for spare change.
The thing is, there are a myriad of ways we can step through the crowd. And it doesn’t have to be the big things. The angels who stopped for me 20 times over the past few winter months to spend two minutes of their time pushing me and Sophie out of the snow made a true difference in my life. I thank God for bringing those angels across my path.
The big challenge when we are in a crowd is to remember both who we are (people who want to live lives of peace and contribution to others) and who the people in front of us are (not nameless, not faceless, but individual people with incredible worth. People who cry out for love.)
Love. Everyone wants, deserves, and needs to be loved. To know that they matter. That they have great value. That they are not just a face in the crowd.