Rubberneckers

By Simon J. Green

Rants

Train Wreck

Two senior citizens, women with a slow drawl to their aging voices, I watched as they scrabbled for information. They were desperate for it. The pair strained their ears, they were actually standing in their seats, trying to find the best angle to capture the snatches of detail. A train conductor was the one speaking, his voice being carried intermittently on the air and around the train’s door. I was interested, not in the story of the injured boy on the train track, but why these two women, completely unrelated to the whole scenario, were so desperate for information.

Rubberneckers. The train wreck you can’t look away from. The gaggle that gathers around an incident, all without shame, barefaced curiosity seekers apparently anonymous among their brothers and sisters. You see it all the time. Should a police car pull up to the curb and the blue shirts inside get out, you’re guaranteed at least one curtain will open and its owner peer outside. People love to stick their noses in. The train station I was at with the old women wringing their hands to find out what was going on, that was a non-event. I don’t know what happened, but two ambulance officers, a St John’s officer and two members of the police were poking around the train line on the other side of the station. Two young girls who seemed to know the boy were sobbing and consoling one another, “He’ll be alright, he’ll be OK,” while a policeman interviewed them. Another took photos. I bet you’re dying to know what happened. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you. I didn’t find out. I looked though, snuck a peek. You’d do the same. You might be like the fellow who walked over to the other side of the station and looked over, right above the officers doing their work. He just strolled up, hands in his pockets, and looked over the edge.

I thought it was kind of rude.

I saw another incident involving a much larger gathering. Swanston Street in Melbourne, and a large crowd, about thirty or forty regular people crowded around the side of the road. This bulge of humans meant I had to walk around them to continue travelling. Unfortunately, the friends I was with detached and went to join the group. I sighed and sat down on a park bench nearby, waiting, watching as every person in that horde tried their hardest to get a better view. Like the pulsing swarm of punters at a music gig, squeezing and pushing to get to the front row. The main event here on Swanston Street was an act of violence, the aftermath, the punters hoping to get a little glimpse of the tension. At a gig you hope to get a guitar pick or drumstick to take as a souvenir. The gathering of rubberneckers were hoping for a mental photograph of the pool of blood, a broken jaw or a mashed in face. I know what happened in this scenario. Are you dying to find out? There was blood. There was a broken jaw. The police were involved. Tantalising, isn’t it? As a consequence, we were late to where we were going.

Why do people have such a macabre hunger for these sorts of events? Don’t they feel weird about it, standing over an injured boy or an arrested vagrant, staring down at them with no pretence? It’s clear they are there out of interest. I feel rude. Making it obvious I’m having a good hard look makes me uncomfortable. It seems like none of my business. The police are there, the ambulance officers are there, someone’s being treated or arrested, they’re probably a little embarrassed, or will be when they look back on it. I don’t imagine I’m helping that situation much by standing not but two feet away, staring like an open mouthed idiot. Maybe it’s just me.

Whatever the reason, all these people want the information. They want to go home and tell their friends the story that sparked up their otherwise average day. They want to store away the moment to bring out again at a party, when the conversation turns to recounts of similar stories. It’s really a purely selfish interest, a crowd of spectators without a sport.

On Change

By Simon Smithson

Essay

A friend of mine doesn’t meet new people easily. With the diagnostic aid of the internet age, I supposed it’s possible he may be suffering from a touch of Asperger’s (if there is such a thing as a ‘touch’ of Asperger’s).

In familiar situations, among a known social circle, he is driven to attempt a small and ugly kind of domination – by putdowns, by attack, by withholding attention. But as soon as a random, unknown element – a new person, for example – is introduced, the strength and the bluster vanish from him. He goes strangely, noticeably quiet; he backs down like a yelping Chihuahua confronted with a pit bull. The more distinct and different a stranger, and their appearance and lifestyle, is from my friend and his, the more difficulty he has meeting their eyes; the more obvious the concerned workings of his mind become on his face. In the absence of common ground, my friend quickly becomes unsure, and intimidated. He has no way of bridging the gap, and suddenly his confidence in his own position starts to tremble until it collapses like a house of cards. Those of us who know him well can see the uncertainty and the fear creeping up in him, in his pauses and silences until, finally, when we are alone, he will confide in us: ‘I didn’t like that guy.’

Whether my friend has any depth of understanding regarding this behaviour, I don’t know. I don’t believe it will ever cause him any serious trouble. By now, his life is fairly delineated. Without some sudden future break from his life until this moment, he will always have the same friends and be surrounded by the same people – if not exactly the same people, then people who are similar enough as to make little difference. He will always live in and experience the same socio-economic streams; work in the same echelons of the same field. The odds are good he will marry the girl he is currently with and together, they will grow older, have children, work their way up the corporate ladder, retire, and die. My friend will, most likely, never have to confront the fact that he clams up around strangers; especially when they don’t work white-collar jobs and like the same things that he likes.

This is a part of himself that he, probably, will never have to change. And that’s going to be OK. As dysfunctional behaviour goes, it’s a pretty mild example. There’s no harm in it, except maybe to his chances of having a wider and more variegated circle of friends.

The question for me is, if he wanted to change, and he had the necessary capacity for self-awareness, would he be able to? Can people actually change who and how they are?

Once, years ago, I was having dinner with my parents and another friend of mine, and the conversation turned to our friend Dean. Dean was in the process of working himself out of an extended, months-long slump during which he’d stopped taking care of himself, lost his job, packed on weight, and stopped leaving the house except for an occasional coffee. There had been no great flash of light, no Road to Damascus for him, but Dean had, piece by piece, quit smoking, stopped drinking so much, found a new job, and was now seeing a new girl.

‘That guy’s really pulled himself together,’ I said. ‘He’s really changed.’

My father snorted dismissively.

‘No one ever changes,’ he said. ‘Not unless they’re faced with some total catastrophe.’

According to movies, that is the entire truth of the process. Even according to stories I’ve heard, this is how it goes. In 2002 there was a classroom shooting at Melbourne’s Monash University; a thankfully rare occurrence here. A girl I was seeing knew someone present when the gunman opened fire. He took a bullet in the hand, but, thanks to timely medical intervention, lost neither the hand nor any appreciable use of it – and the resulting change in his personality was, apparently, astonishing.

‘He was so introverted before. Kinda sad all the time,’ the girl said. ‘Now he’ll talk to anyone. He’s so happy, he’s so talkative.’

This was in line with everything that TV had taught me.

Speaking to another friend, earlier tonight, about the concept of change, she told me about how, some years ago, she’d battled cancer, and the experience changed her.

‘It changed the way I go through life,’ she said. ‘I used to hate people. OK, I still kinda do. But I value people so much more. I value the interactions and the conversations. And now I live life the way I want to. I have fun and I travel and yeah. I’ve changed.’

Compare and contrast this to the experience of my friend Juliet:

‘I was dating this guy,’ Juliet said. ‘Who was a complete asshole. We were together for a while, and everyone knew – I mean, knew he was an asshole. He’d always been an asshole. And one day I got a phone call to tell me that he’d fallen while he was rock-climbing. He was rushed to the hospital and they thought he was going to be paralysed.’

The asshole, fortunately, was not paralysed. He was fine after some minor surgery.

‘But I knew,’ Juliet said, ‘that it wasn’t going to change him. It wasn’t going to be some life-altering moment. Coming so close to death or quadriplegia… he was still going to be the same asshole.’

She was right, apparently. The guy didn’t change one jot.

This is what people tell me, for the most part, over and over again. One constantly-repeating refrain.

I left my ex because he was a son of a bitch, and he was never going to change.

We broke up because I kept giving her chances and finally, I realised that she just couldn’t change.

Some things don’t change. A leopard can’t change its spots. People don’t change.

According to the reading I’m doing at the moment (if you’ve got the time, I highly recommend Reinventing Your Life, by Young and Klosko, two cognitive-approach-based psychologists), people maintain the same patterns and habits, unconsciously, throughout their entire lives, and find their way, likewise unknowingly, towards situations that reinforce those patterns and habits, unless there’s some kind of course correction, because finding the comfort of familiarity is the psychological equivalent of water seeking its own level – even if those patterns and habits are painful or destructive.

There’s a line from an old detective story, The Long Goodbye, I think. Marlowe or Spade or the Continental Op or whoever it is talks about the case of a man who was nearly crushed by a beam falling from a construction yard as he was walking down a city sidewalk, who realised in that deadly instant that his life was suffocating him, and so he faked his own death and left town, only to set up a new life that was a carbon-copy of the old one.

‘He’d adjusted to beams falling,’ the detective said. ‘Then he’d adjusted himself to beams not falling.’

The very, very brief straw poll  I’ve taken seems to indicate that most of the people I know don’t have faith in the ability of other people to change. And, I admit, I’ve seen little evidence. The more I see of people from my past, the more I see that they’ve simply become more and more entrenched in themselves; for good or for bad. I see counter-attack and avoidance; I see people the same at thirty as they were at twenty, only more so. I see the same things in myself; attitudes and beliefs that have never shifted, repetitive cycles of various sizes and shapes. Whether they take hours, days, or years to cycle through to their reset points, the point remains that they do and then simply start to grind on once more.

But I have to believe that this isn’t the way it has to be, that, with the phenomenal gift of consciousness and the ability to be aware that we as humans have, change is entirely possible.

Preferably by conscious choice, and not through being shot in the hand.

Even if takes a while.