58: The case of the broken bicycle.

- January 14, 2018 -

It was a sweltering summer’s day in 2016 when, less than 500 meters into a five-kilometre commute, I punctured the front tire on my bike.

It wasn’t irreparably damaged, nor was it damaged in such a way as would prove costly to fix. I also didn’t have too many things with me at the time — just a lightly filled backpack carrying the few materials I needed for a day of writing — which meant that I wasn’t burdened in any way that would lead me to feel outright discomfort. And, best of all, I did have a freshly restocked batch of podcasts to keep me company no matter how long it took to get home. So, recognizing that the situation easily could have been far worse, I embarked upon the remainder of the journey in good spirits, pushing my bike alongside me as I made my way on foot.

As I went along, though, I was surprised by the sheer number of people who stopped and offered to help. There were the fellow cyclists, for instance, each of whom would either ask if there was anything they could do or share a story about their own biking mishap to boost my spirits. Then, as I got closer to home, there were also all of the non-cyclists, all of the people who had just happened to be working in their garages or mowing their lawns as I walked by. They would wave me over, or shout down the street, thinking, I imagined, that I just needed some air in my tires, thinking that I had a flat tire rather than a punctured one.

Beyond all of them, there were also the kind-hearted people at the bike shop the next morning, the ones who sympathized with my dilemma, who took in my bike as soon as I arrived, and who sent me off on my way — bike fully repaired, improved beyond even its prior, pre-punctured-tire condition — within the span of just 10 or 15 minutes.

All of this is to say that, in the end, everything worked out perfectly well. It was only later that I realized that, really, much of that easy success had likely been due to the fact that my predicament had been such an obvious one.

You see, as I walking along on that hot summer’s day, bike in tow, it was very clear to everyone I passed that I was having trouble. My front tire was visibly damaged, my bike was dragging along beside me with the mechanical equivalent of a limp, and I myself must have looked rather down on my luck. There was, in other words, no question as to whether or not I was in need of assistance, and, should anyone wish to offer help, there was also a clearly established — and socially acceptable — protocol for what they might do.

Usually, though, the challenges we face aren’t made this visible, aren’t so clearly marked as to elicit offers of help from any total stranger who might happen to be passing by. And even when our challenges are known to others, there isn’t always a clear template regarding how they should proceed to help, much less an open acknowledgment on our behalf that we’d be willing to accept their assistance should it be offered to us.

Having gone through that experience with my punctured tire, though, I can’t help but wonder what might happen if that same level of problem recognition were to become more common in other areas of our lives. What if we made sure to tell others when we were struggling with something, made it clear that we would welcome their help, and ensured that an actionable template for how they might proceed was made available to them?

What if, in other words, more of our challenges — and more of their solutions — were as clearly defined to others as they are when we see someone walking down the street with a broken bicycle?


Waving from my desk,
– J


This piece comes from Jana Marie’s newsletter, The Sunday Letters. You can sign up to receive future editions below.