The other day I was walking down the sidewalk, my thoughts lost in the beauty of the young day; who knew what lay ahead or really cared? It is springtime in Rome and I was enjoying a bit of reverie on my way to work. Each step blended into the next. There was no such thing as time.
Then a sound from right behind me–unidentifiable except as a signal of imminent danger–came crashing into my consciousness. Something large was coming at me and I would get hit if I didn’t move. In a flash, I turned to look, dodged the oncoming threat, and snapped into hyper-alertness.
What I saw, as I got my bearings, perched on the edge of the sidewalk, was not, thank goodness, a car coming down the sidewalk, though that can happen here in Rome, or a mugger–or worse. It was a jogger.
He was fit and muscular, with all the accoutrements of someone who ran a lot, and all the signs of someone who expected others to get out of his way. His progress was inexorable. He was doing something virtuous and important: high priority.
“Rudeness, pure and simple?” you might ask. “Plain old-fashioned boorishness?”
Yes, and even a bit mean. How did he know I could move so quickly at the last moment, without harm to myself? That I had full hearing and knew he was there? He was willing to take that risk. Maybe I should take it as a compliment. I looked young and spry enough to compete on an equal footing so he did not think of his muscled litheness as intimidating to me. All’s fair in love and sidewalks. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Or is it “each man for himself”…
But was it something more?
In another time and place, long, long ago, there lived a lovely lady who once faced a tremendous danger, a potential threat to her very life. Suddenly, riding up on a beautiful white steed, there appeared a knight in shining armor who swept her up and carried her off to safety.
In your dreams. As the cigarette ad said, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Right?
I know, I know, anyone who would suggest there might be something salvageable from the era of chivalry must be not just conservative, but downright reactionary, or worse, self-deluded. A believer in fairy-tales.
It is true there is much to criticize about historical eras when one sex was placed on a pedestal, only to be deprived of the rights, privileges, and basic human dignity afforded the other, and the other sex beset with expectations beyond any reasonable measure. But isn’t it equally cynical to assume today’s way of treating someone is inevitable? Is it really all that crazy and backward to imagine a kind of chivalry for the twenty-first century, one appropriate for an age of democracy and equality?
After all, there are still knights among us. If I had fallen, one of them would have rushed to my aid–whether a pregnant woman pushing a young child in a stroller, her five-year- old boy, the immigrant woman speaking neither English nor Italian going to her cleaning job, the old man doing repair work on the building across the street or the man in the perfectly cut suit. So others clearly think chivalry is not dead.
So what’s with the jogger? Everything about him gave the message that I should step aside. The wires dangling from his ears, his failure to make eye contact, the racing stripes of his expensive running attire: all bespoke his primary engagement with something other than the moment in which two human beings accidentally found themselves, at the same time, on the same humble patch of sidewalk. As Dalton Conley, author of The Elsewhere Society, might put it, in his mind the jogger was elsewhere, somewhere better. He had that grim look of someone who is certain he is in the right, even if he does not necessarily know why–who has to do what he has to do. The “I just work here, I didn’t make the rules” look of so much of modern bureaucratic life. Ok, perhaps he didn’t make them, but he’s enforcing them, isn’t he?
It is jarring to me when, in the act of developing just those things once associated with performing heroic duties–muscles, strength, endurance, self-discipline–, someone acts in a way that is the direct opposite. With today’s dominant culture nodding approvingly, the jogger perhaps places paramount importance on his physique–not because he seeks to serve anyone or anything, but simply for himself. At most, he imagines someone else it might please, impress, or attract. But isn’t it strange to betray ugliness in the very process of trying to cultivate allure and admiration?
The incident made me reflect on the purpose of this kind of self-important physical activity for those not facing warfare or other immediate demands for prowess, those not even willing to employ their strengths in the small tasks of generosity possible in everyday life; on that rarity today, a sense of honor and loyalty to an unattainable love and a belief in inner content, not mere appearance; on the vast differences in the way people can approach the inhabiting of the same moment, including one in which, out of nowhere, we share our little paths with another person, stranger or friend, however temporarily.
If this jogger stands for what it means to be alert and awake in the world as it is today, in the glare of daytime and full consciousness, I’ll meet you in the dream-world.
The future is but a question mark
Hangs above my head, there in the dark
Can’t see for the brightness is staring me blind
God bid yesterday goodbye
Bring on the night
I couldn’t stand another hour of daylight