A day in the life of an anxiety sponge

On New Years Eve, I looked out at the crowds at Disney World and saw molecules of a high-energy gas compressed into a small space. Compressed gas molecules move quickly but have nowhere to go, so they ferociously slam into each other, transferring their kinetic energy to their neighbors and causing a broiling heat. The same kinetic energy gets recycled around and around and amplifies as it goes. The same thing happens with human crowds, except instead of kinetic energy they exchange anxiety.

To get an idea of what New Years Eve is like in Disney World, imagine the population of a medium-sized city like Newport Beach, CA (or Scranton, PA, if you are more of an east coaster) crammed into one-sixth of the area of Central Park in New York City. That is what it feels like in The Magic Kingdom, just one of the four main parks of the Walt Disney World Resort, on New Year’s Eve.

Remember, too, that many of the people there don’t speak English, most of them are there for the first time and don’t know their way around, and most of them have small children who are hot, exhausted and cranky. I imagine myself hovering above the crowd, able to see tension traveling in waves from person to person in the massive sea of people. Getting bumped or hassled can easily lead to a spark of anger, or even just an internalized feeling of despair. It gets passed around the crowd, recirculated in a small space, until some people just break. A child sitting in the middle of a walkway bawling. An adult crying because she lost her phone.

So when I’m at Disney World in a crowd like that, I make a point of being an anxiety sponge.

I walk slowly: I have no deadline so important that I have to add to the stress of people around me.

I constantly scan my surroundings: left, right, and down. Children are unpredictable, people in wheelchairs aren’t as mobile and adaptive in crowds. And they don’t get noticed, so they get slammed into. I always make space for them.

If I see someone careening toward me in a rush, I stop, and smile, and give them space to go by.

If I see a parent dealing with a stroller trying to fight through the crowd, I make eye contact and smile, and stop to make space for them as they go by.

When I see a family dealing with a small child crying or having a tantrum, I make eye contact, smile–maybe even a sympathetic look–and give them space.

If someone is jostled and bumps into me, I smile at them.

If someone looks confused or lost, I smile at them…. and if I have a chance, I’ll even offer to help.

The eye contact and smile are important to me. When everyone is stressed out, everyone is wearing their “stressed out” face. And when you are stressed out, and all you see is stressed out faces around you, it makes you more stressed out.

Suppose I can make someone feel a tiny bit better just by smiling at them. Suppose I can absorb a little of their stress, instead of transferring it back to them with my expression.

Why on earth wouldn’t I want to do that?

I have a lot of “privilege” (if I may use that culturally loaded term) at Disney World. I’m not talking about it in terms of race or gender, either. In a place like Disney World, there is a particular kind of privilege that comes with being tall and able-bodied, having no children, and knowing where everything is because I’ve been there many times before.

This puts me at a huge advantage over the people who have to deal with strollers or small children, or a disability, or even the simple confusion of not fully knowing where they are trying to go. All of these things radically increase people’s stress levels. These are things I don’t have to deal with. That is my privilege.

So, with great power comes great responsibility, right?

That is why I always make eye contact and smile.

It’s my way of saying: “I see you, struggling, and I’m going to give you space.”

It’s my way of saying, “I’m not going to be mad at your for inconveniencing me, because I know you have troubles of your own.”

It’s my way of saying, “There are a lot of things in your environment hassling you right now, but I won’t be one of them.”

I try to be predictable because I know others can’t be. I try to be calm because I know others aren’t. It’s my way of being a “heat sink” in the middle of a compressed high-energy gas. I do it because I can. It’s a superpower I have.

If you had that superpower, wouldn’t you do it, too?