Emily vs. Elderly Man

I was disrespectful to the elderly today. Specifically, an older man in my spin class who approaches me every class despite my attempts to get him to stop.

It started a few weeks before Halloween, when I entered the spin room at my local LA Fitness to procure a bike before the (usually full) class started. I have been attending this class religiously for the past year after having to go through trying a bunch of different classes and teachers before finding this one, and loving it.

The only free bike was next to the Elderly Man. As I was minding my own business, cleaning and adjusting my bike, he turned to me and said, “You wearing your Halloween costume early?” I was surprised, and thrown off by him speaking to me. I am not someone who enjoys chit chat or small talk, especially at 7:30am on a Saturday morning. I looked at him with my brows furrowed but a smile on my face, mirroring his.

“What?” I managed. (Did he just insult me?)

“You’re not wearing a smile!” He said jubilantly. I immediately stopped smiling. Not only did I not want to smile, I didn’t want to talk to him. Especially if he thinks I should be as happy and smiley as he was. I do not enjoy being told what to do.

“I don’t need to smile,” I said with a stank face (you know, the one you make when you smell something stinky). Elderly Man proceeded to jest, and offered to juggle or stand on his head to get me to smile. Getting more annoyed, I just shook my head and left. I returned later when class began, and felt bothered & flustered the entire time, wondering if there’d be more stupid comments once class was done.

There was.

“See, that wasn’t so bad was it?” Elderly Man said to me as I ignored him and gathered my things.

The next few weeks, he continued to approach me and say stupid comments.

“Where’s the smile today?” “Fun, fun, fun!” “Are you having fun yet?”

After talking about it at length with my husband, I tried a few various passive aggressive tactics, hoping he’d get the hint and leave me alone. Here’s what I tried, and didn’t work:

Week 1:  Tried just making an angry stank face when he approached and not responding.

Week 2: I made sure to have headphones on when I set up my bike and kept them on until class began. That worked, until I forgot to put them on again right after class, and he approached me while I was stretching and cooling down.

Week 3: I tried ignoring him and pretending he wasn’t there when he was standing in front of my bike.

Week 4: Ignored him again by turning around as he approached me.

Week 5: I sat in the back of the class, which I never do because I like being up front near the fans.

After the Week 5 attempt, Elderly Man yet again approached after class, and I was caught off guard. I didn’t say anything as he came up and said something stupid to me. I went to the bathroom afterwards and fought tears. As I splashed my face with water, I berated myself for being so bothered by this “sweet, harmless old man” who wasn’t actually doing anything to me. I felt stupid. I felt powerless. I felt like if I said something, I would be an ass for being mean to an old man who “means no harm.”

Here’s the kicker: My religious upbringing has ingrained the “respect your elders” slogan in my brain. Always be polite, listen, and heed your elders… no matter who they are. Which basically translate to: do as they say unquestioningly and immediately. Not to do so means you’re being disrespectful. My dad was a pastor, and anything I did wrong was immediately reported to him and frowned upon… affecting me and his job.

biblereasons.com says this about respecting elders and sounds exactly like my 18 years of religious education:

“We are to always respect our elders whether or not if it’s our parents. One day you will grow up and be respected by younger people just like them. Take the time to listen to their experiences and wisdom to grow in knowledge. If you take the time to listen to them you will see that many elderly people are humorous, informative, and excited. Never forget to take care of your elders helping them with what they need and always be gentle showing loving kindness.”

The site then lists ways to respect your elders, and quotes a few verses such as:

  • Timothy 5:1-3: “Never speak harshly to an older man, but appeal to him respectfully as you would to your own father…”
  • 1 Peter 5:5: “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
  • Leviticus 19:32: “Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged. Fear your God. I am the Lord.”

Thus, this situation had me torn. I know I should be respectful. I get it. But what if there are exceptions to the rule? What if there are elderly who should not be respected? What do I do then?

I googled it, and the women who made suggestions on what to do seemed to have none. The best suggestion seemed to be to put something gross in your teeth so that the harasser would be disgusted and stop. (That will teach him!) Ugh. The more I thought about how upset I was, the more I felt that fear – that what if fear – that we women often feel but don’t always acknowledge.

“What if I say something and he gets upset and follows me to the parking lot?”

“What if I get hurt?”

“What if i say something and I get in trouble?”

“What if I lose my job?”

“What if I speak up, and people think of me as mean, as the bitch-who-doesn’t-smile-and-is-mean-to-sweet-old-men?”

“What if I become the outcast or the group if I do something about it?”

“What if people look at me like I’m crazy for being bothered by this?”

“What if I am being crazy for being bothered by this?”

I texted my husband “just in case” something happened and let him know I was upset. I was so frustrated and angry that I didn’t want to go to class the next week. My husband suggested different things to try, but ultimately I didn’t feel like he could understand. He sweetly offered to come to class with me every week. But that didn’t feel right, like putting a bandaid on something that needed surgery.

And then a few days later, like lemon on a paper cut, Donald Trump became elected as President of the United States. A man that is a notorious womanizer. A leader of our country that shows little respect to women. And my fears felt more founded and real, and I became worried that this type of behavior would happen more often, and even become acceptable. I worried about my safety (and my daughters, and loved ones, and about all women in general and their safety, too… lots of worrying going on here). 

But you guys, I’m a strong woman. I’m not weak, I’m not one to shy away from conflict, something I disagree with, or a good fight. And once I remembered that, and took myself out of this yucky, victim mentality, I thought… FUCK THIS.

I’m not going to stop going to this class that I love – that I look forward to it every week – because I didn’t do anything wrong. What Elderly Man was doing (knowingly or not) was UNWANTED and UNWELCOME, which is straight up HARASSMENT. And it’s not okay.

This wasn’t clear to me right away, if at all. I thought I was just being sensitive or something. And that’s a shame. That needs to change.

——-

Now, on to today and how I spurned my religious upbringing:

Week 6: I got pumped on my way to the gym. I chugged my coffee and gave myself a pep talk. I practiced out loud some things I could say if he bothered me this time. I wasn’t going to put on my headphones unless I wanted to. I wasn’t going to sit in the back of class unless I wanted to. I wasn’t going to just shrug Elderly Man’s behavior off as silly and humorous.    

I walked into the room, and sure enough, Elderly Man was there. I made sure there were at least a few other people in the room, and I took a deep breath and chose a bike I wanted in the front. I set up my bike, and squatted down to get my headphones. Sure enough, elderly man came over to me and leaned his arms on two bikes, hunching over me. My heart started pounding and I started shaking. But before he could get a word out, I said loudly:

No. I’m not interested in talking to you, so stop bothering me and leave me alone.”

He didn’t say a word, stood up, and left the room. I was still shaking from adrenaline, and I felt guilty for being so harsh. But I also felt good, and chose to dwell on that instead of the guilt. I felt like I stood my ground. I felt empowered that I did something outside of my comfort zone, and stood up for myself. I felt like I made my worth known, even if it was only to myself. I felt like I did my best.

Elderly Man didn’t come back for class later. I felt a pang of guilt, as I didn’t “speak to him respectfully” as I was taught. But I refused to feel sorry for him. Considering the circumstances and how hard it was for me to speak to him at all, I did what I had to do. I did nothing wrong.

If what I said to my harasser doesn’t stop him, then my next steps will be to include the authorities. But I will go to class next week. I will not feel guilty for what I did, despite my upbringing. I will not live in fear of being harassed. I will not let my daughters live in fear of being harassed. I will empower them. I will support them. I will support anyone else who feels they are being harassed. I will not judge you if you stand up for yourself. I will step in if you need me to. I will empower you now, to do something. To say something. If aren’t doing something because you are afraid, take the steps to make sure you can do it safely. Ask for help. But don’t choose nothing. You have rights, you have freedoms. Don’t let someone or something take them away.

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