Thursday, March 29, 2012

Urban Safety: "Be Aware"

"Be aware"
Keep your eyes and ears open! Scan for threats and possible dangers. At first, you will do this actively. With practice, it will become habit. Remember the old Dungeons and Dragons adage: If you get ambushed, you already failed your listen and spot check.  

This is part 2 of our 5 part series on urban safety tips. In part 1, I talked about the importance of "crossing the street" to avoid uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations. Here is what we should remember about "crossing the street":

"If you are walking down a sidewalk and observe any activity or conditions up ahead that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, either a) cross to the other side of the street or b) double back."

Remember that there is a difference between observing potential dangers and just being biased or discriminatory. Use your best judgment and experience in making the call, but do not select certain aspects of the situation to downplay/overplay at the expense of others. For example, if you see a rowdy group of young white men walking towards you, their rowdy behavior should be at the front of your mind. Just because young white men in Chicago are less likely to commit crimes than other demographics, the behavior of this group should strongly indicate that these guys might be the exception. That said, do not worry about political correctness if you have genuine cause to worry. If a group of three men in hoodies points at you and then starts to check over their shoulders for potential witnesses as they close the distance, skin color should not matter. Regardless of their perceive race, you should be rapidly exiting the situation.

Next Tip: Be Aware
That brings us to the next part of our safety lesson: "Be Aware". "Cross the street" is a good first rule because it is concrete, specific, and sets the tone for the following safety tips. Insofar as urban safety has a thesis, however, "Be Aware" is probably it. This principle basically comes down to using your eyes and ears at all times.

"Be aware" 
-Look over your shoulder as you walk
-Keep your head on a swivel
-Watch for suspicious shadows
-Have your ears open for unusual visual cues (muttered conversation around corners that stops as you approach, twigs snapping, rustling behind dumpsters, etc.)
-Identify potentially unsafe situations before you reach them

These are some sample strategies for being aware in an urban environment. Under no circumstances should you limit yourself to these methods; there are dozens of other actions that constitute "being aware" that I have not listed. My above suggestions, however, are a good starting point.

The common thread in all of them, and this returns to the header of this post, is an active scanning for threats. At first, we should consider active awareness as distinct from the more common "PASSIVE" awareness. In the end, however, we are going to see that the two are not actually that different. You want to evolve your awareness from passive, to active, and then again to habitual. Let's delve into this a bit.

Step 1: Passive Awareness
As you walk down the street, there is a good chance that you are passively aware of the world around you (But if you have headphones on, or are buried in an iPhone, then you probably aren't even passively engaged!). You are cognizant of visual and aural cues in your vicinity, and on some level you are processing them. Trees are green and pretty, dogs are cute and cuddly, people are going about their day, and cars are zooming by. Passive awareness of the world, however, is not detail oriented. It gives you a general sense of your surroundings but leaves you oblivious to any specifics, especially the specifics that might threaten you. Can you remember the colors of the cars you walked by this morning? Their make and model? Do you think you could point out the faces of your fellow pedestrians in a police line up? Do you remember what clothing they wore? Most people can't. Most people do not even try.

I am not suggesting that passive awareness is useless. After all, passive awareness can give you a decent sense of the obvious dangers; if a giant 40 man brawl is rumbling in the sidewalk down the road, you will probably notice it and steer clear. You are unlikely to fall into an uncovered manhole, and you are probably aware of cars at red lights and stop signs. Passive awareness is an acceptable way to walk through the world in the vast majority of situations. It is also a lot easier and less stressful. If you are out with your friends, it is quite a drag to be processing every last detail you encounter on the streets. How can one enjoy life like that?

That first time you get robbed, jumped, attacked, or just find yourself in a horrible situation, passive awareness becomes a lot less useful. It happens only once (hopefully), but that one time is an identity and experience changing event. Passive awareness is terrible at identifying the cues and warnings that lead up to this event. It will serve you well most days, but that one time you really needed to observe danger beforehand, it is going to let you down. In most instances, criminals act as predators. They operate on a level that is invisible to passive awareness, and that is why they are successful at their trade. To counter this threat, you need to employ a more active engagement of the world.

Step 2: Active Awareness
Once you realize that passive awareness has some serious flaws, it is time to increase your state of alertness. That is where the active awareness strategy becomes relevant. All of those tips that I mentioned above come into play. Keep your head on a swivel. Have your ears open. Check around your shoulder every few seconds. Turn your gaze towards strange or unexpected noises to determine the threat (if any). Essentially, active awareness is a state of vigilance. Some might call it hyper vigilance, even.

You need not always be in a frame of active awareness. This is what separates it from paranoia. Active awareness should be a tool that you employ whenever you need it, a mode that you can turn on when it is called for. In cities, whenever you are walking down sparsely populated sidewalks, whenever it is dark outside, or whenever you are in a neighborhood known for crime, you should be able to switch on your active awareness setting. Alternately, you could voluntarily engage active awareness every few minutes, reminding yourself to look around and observe your environment on a schedule.

The problem with this, as some of you might identify, is that active awareness is not really practical for every day situations. When you are out with your parents or significant other, they are going to think you mighty strange if you are gawking about like an owl every 20 seconds, or snapping to attention whenever you hear broken twig of crunch of gravel underfoot. That said, passive awareness is just not good enough to catch the threats before they arise. How is one to implement the safeguarding principles of active awareness while retaining the ease of passive awareness?

Step 3: Habitual Awareness
With a lot of practice, you will start to develop what I call "habitual awareness". It is a combination of both states, where you are constantly engaged with the world around you, but in a calm and gathered way. The habitually aware do not alarm pedestrians as they walk down the street (with rapidly swiveling heads and sharp reactions to odd noises), nor are they paranoid wrecks in company of friends on everyday strolls. It is the samurai on outing through Edo's marketplace, the warrior monk on pilgrimage through the countryside. It is the epitome of that concept "Zanshin" (a calm, collected, cool awareness and presence of mind) that I touched on before. This should be your goal as a warrior. It is certainly mine, and I have given much thought and practice to the matter. I hope that I am closer to my goal now than I was in years past.

Applying the "Be Aware" Tip
No one is going to get to habitual awareness overnight. I certainly have not, and probably won't by tomorrow morning! While you develop the sense, however, you can continue to summon active awareness at key moments. Develop an internal clock that triggers an active awareness scan. Every 30 seconds, give a look over your shoulder. Every time you reach an alley or corner, listen a little bit harder and search for suspicious shadows or other indicators of trouble. When walking out late, try and scan every 15 seconds (or less). It takes a while to adopt into your daily routine, but that one time you avert a disaster, you will be thankful for all the awkward moments that came before. Remember; skills only develop through practice, reflection, refinement, and yet more practice. 

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