Stepping Off the Elevator: Being a Better Ally Means Being Teachable

I’ve done a lot of hanging out in the hospital lately. The cafeteria ladies recognize me, I chat and banter easily with the nurses and therapists, and the doctors who visit my mom greet me by name. In this time, I’ve had the chance to observe a lot of different people and note different trends in how larger crowds of people behave.

In the part of the hospital I’m in, there’s a central section that contains four elevators going to each of the six floors of the hospital. These are the only elevators in this area that are for public use – there are several other, larger elevators built for transporting patients in beds and wheelchairs, but you need a keycard access to use those.

My mom, throughout these stays, has been in rooms on both the fourth and the third floors and the cafeteria is on the ground floor so I’m frequently riding up and down with a combination of doctors, nurses, orderlies, and visitors – but mostly visitors. I’ve caught on to a somewhat funny trend – a trap I’ve fallen into myself. You see, every floor looks exactly the same from the point of view of the elevator. So it’s tremendously easy to not notice which floor you’re on and hop off on the wrong one, or hop on an elevator going the wrong direction.

I’ve noticed people respond to this in one of two ways. There are those who seem to just shrug and decide to roll with it, pretending that it was what they meant to do all along, even to the point of defending their mistake. And there are those who sheepishly laugh it off, admit their mistake, and move on.

One time, I was riding the elevator up to the fourth floor, and there were passengers with me going to 3, 5 and 6 as well. The elevator stopped on the first floor and a man got on, “You guys going down?”

“Nope, all the way up to six and then back down. You’ll probably want to get off and wait.”

The man shrugged, looked at the still open door, and went, “Nah, I’ll just ride along.” He was already on the elevator, he figured, so why not just do this? Never mind that a down elevator was sure to arrive in a shorter amount of time than it would take to ride all the way up and then back down.

In the scheme of things, it’s a small thing, momentary embarrassment and a quick decision that did not actually make the best use of one’s time. But, being a writer, I could help but think of all the times that I have been that man in the elevator, unwilling to admit to a split second error in judgment and costing myself more time and problems than it would be to simply admit my mistake and take a couple of steps to correct it. We refer to this in metaphorical terms as “digging our own graves,” a metaphor played to great effect on the TV show Scrubs.

I think perhaps a new (probably unnecessary) metaphor that could work would be refusing to step off the elevator. Often, the mistakes we make build upon themselves – if we simply admitted our initial error and corrected it by stepping off the elevator, we wouldn’t end up stuck, defending our poor judgment call, our rash decision-making, our terrible word choice or sentiment. Often, especially online, things that could have been fixed with a quick, “you know what, while I know what I meant to do, it didn’t come out that way, and I’m sorry. I’ll fix it.”

For me, I try to avoid being heteronormative in my work, especially as a queer person interested in a spectrum of genders. But sometimes I screw up and write, say, dating advice or a post about marriage with the assumption that I’m talking about cisgender men and women. And I’m lucky enough to have readers who will point that out to me, who will let me know when I’ve screwed up. In a lot of cases, it’s something that’s not a huge deal in the scheme of things – a word here, a turn of phrase there. The result is more of a micro-aggression – something that stings a bit, but isn’t on par with hurling slurs or committing physical violence (though micro-aggressions are forms of violence in themselves). But if I don’t own those small things, if I don’t show that I’m willing and able to step off the elevator and correct my error quickly, despite the embarrassment it might cost me, I reveal to my readers that I can’t be trusted to be called on bigger mistakes, either.

I think this is the sort of thing that Jesus may have meant when he talked about how he who is faithful in the small things will be faithful in the bigger things too. This is how trust is formed – if you can’t trust me to respect you when it comes to the smaller things, how in the world can I expect your trust with the larger things? If everything with me is a fight to get even the tiniest glimmer of dignity, how in the world could my readers expect me to understand and respect them in larger things?

I really hate to call myself an ally, because I firmly believe that “ally” is an action, not a label, nor a position you can earn through “years of good work.” If I am going to dedicate myself to being for justice, and therefore being against systems which perpetuate injustice, part of that means being faithful to justice in the small things as well as the big. It means that I have to check myself, internally and externally with friends, and allow them to check me. Microaggressions can happen in seconds, but last for a long time. I must show myself trustworthy to the marginalized by correcting my mistakes quickly and by being teachable about my own errors.

Many groups don’t want allies they have to fight tooth and nail to get even small corrections through. With all the work that many have to do simply to survive, fighting with a would-be ally who refuses to take your hurt into account, even on a tiny thing, simply isn’t worth it. We have to be teachable when people are willing to teach us. This is how we become trustworthy.