One person’s comfort is another one’s fear

Monday 18 January 2021. Blue Monday. Soon there will be an inauguration, and 6.1% of the UK population have received the first dose of the vaccine. Minute by minute, the days are getting longer.

But at 7am, when I go for my walk after failing to sleep for more than a few hours, it’s still dark, cold, and the Cam has flooded the path. There are always at least two ways of looking at things.

This morning, I recognised another girl walking on the path from last week. I remembered her because she wore a face mask, and carried herself in a way that could only be described as terrified. During a meeting with another walker, or if she realised she was about to be overtaken, she veered far off the path into the grass of Midsummer Common, sometimes even stopping and holding her arms around her chest. I felt for her, and the fear she seemed to feel for every other human on the path.

A moment to set the scene. The river path along the Cam is maybe 1,5-2 metres wide, with the grass of the greens and commons on one side and the river on the other, but with a decent buffer of grass and concrete enforced bank before the water. To me, there is plenty of space. The path is never empty, but the number of walkers, runners, cyclists, and dog walkers at that time of the morning is so low that it’s never crowded (unlike the weekend afternoons, for example). I, a healthy young person, feel perfectly safe to walk there without wearing a mask. I also enjoy seeing people minding distances respectfully by keeping to a left traffic system, smiling and saying good morning. Of course you meet the occasional one who insists on walking in the middle of the path, shout into a phone while vaping and coughing, but they are few and far in between. To me, the river path is a safe place to exercise.

But this girl, in her early twenties I’d guess, clearly experiences something else. This morning I walked behind her, and slowed down and waited to overtake her while two runners came towards us. Yes, they were running side by side and could’ve gone into single file. Yes, they could’ve used the grass to their left between the path and the river to create more space. But there was still at least a metre between my shoulder and that of the runner closest to me, and the same if not more to the girl’s shoulder, as she seems much smaller than me. From my privileged position of health and strength, this was plenty of space in an outdoor environment, with such a short exposure time of proximity, that I felt the risk of catching a virus from the runners is extremely small.

The girl quickly took to her left, into Midsummer Common, stopped to stare at the runners, then stretched out her right arm with a raised middle finger to them as they passed.

This small sign of aggression won’t have kept her safer from the virus. It won’t have changed anything about the runners, apart from how welcome they felt on the path. But she was clearly frightened and angry enough to feel compelled and justified to express herself.

Not knowing anything about her, I can’t say that she was wrong in her estimation of what was safe and not. I can’t blame her for being frustrated and frightened, and for wanting to keep the path free and accessible to everyone, despite any underlying conditions and feelings.

But I question whether open, albeit silent, hostility and aggression is the answer. I tend to believe that it never is, in any situation that one feels threatened in.

I felt sympathy for the runners, who’d had their run ruined. But most of all I felt sorry for the girl, whom I shared the path and direction with, but was clearly so vastly different from me.

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