To Gawk or Not

My Zumba post got me thinking about self-consciousness.

I generally care about what other people think. If I already feel insecure about something, like my clumsiness or body image, I let self-consciousness prevent me from doing things I would otherwise enjoy. But most of the time, I try not letting others’ opinions affect my actions, especially actions I know I want to do that do not negatively affect others.

Here is a case in point.

My husband and I were on a trip touring Italy and the south of France a year and half ago right before we relocated back to New York from London. We took the train from Milan to Nice. We were in the front car with a number of English-speaking people.

The train lurched to a sudden stop. We were told that someone had jumped in front of the train. Apparently this kind of suicide happens frequently in Italy. Just as I was digesting the shocking news, the train doors opened. Passengers were allowed to leave the train to roam freely while the police processed the scene.

Corpse in CSI (courtesy of CSI)

A few people went to see the body. I wanted to go along. I was never the squeamish type. I like shows like CSI in part for the gory crime scenes. I figured that, as horrific as this was, I might never get another chance to see whether the description of the train suicide in “Anna Karenina” was believable. I asked my husband if he wanted to go with me, and he declined. He doesn’t like the sight of blood and had no interest in seeing a corpse.

So, off I went. Without going into details, I can say that the scene was pretty tame compared to those in CSI. I felt the chill on my skin under the hot July sun as I saw the lifeless body. I felt bad for the victim, and still do. The despair she must’ve felt before deciding to end her life…

I did a news search on Google later to learn that the victim was a 68 year old widow who discovered that she had Alzheimers Disease. According to the news report, witnesses saw her lie down on the tracks before our train came. This may explain why her body was lodged between the tracks under the 7th or 8th car.

When I came back to our train car, a number of the English-speaking people approached me. They fell into two general groups.

The first group wanted to know what the body looked like. They weren’t scared of the macabre reality and craved for details and more details, so much so that I was certain they wished I had taken pictures to show them. I asked them why they didn’t just go see it for themselves. They reluctantly told me their reason: they were worried what other people might think of them — that they were crazy to want to see a corpse, that they had no respect for the dead, that they were rubbernecking sensationalists, that they were bad human beings. Their concern for others’ opinions left them feeling dissatisfied.

The second group of people were genuinely scared of seeing a dead body, and yet, unlike my husband, they were so curious. Instead of eagerly asking me to describe the details of the scene, they only requested certain details. “Was there a lot of blood?” “Was her body severed?” “Were her eyes open?” I answered the questions they asked in a plain and straight-up manner without adding any drama. I could tell my description put their imagination into overdrive. They probably imagined all sorts of details that weren’t there. Some may very well ended up being more traumatized than if they had seen the scene for themselves.

What’s the moral of this story? I suppose it is two-fold. The obvious one is to follow your gut and not let fear of others’ opinions — self-consciousness — prevent you from doing something you want to do. The other is to know what you want. It is better to resolve any doubts or curiosity and figure out what you want. Otherwise, imagination and what-ifs can get the better of you.

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