The cost of a hand-made statue

A few years ago, I was hit by a bicycle in Union Square. A Chinese delivery man, going full speed, crashed into my shin.

Felt something crack. Crumbled to the ground. Looked up for help.

It was odd being the person on the ground trying to make eye contact with people walking by. Because, in New York, you always see people below you, crumbled down. But you don’t stop. There are just too many of them. So I couldn’t really be mad when everyone else just sidestepped me.

So, a few weeks ago, I probably should’ve helped when I saw a woman trip onto her face. But I didn’t. I was among hundreds of people who tried to side-step her. One person even offered some meta commentary: “It’s like the Bystander effect.”

It’s something about New York. It’s not that people are mean, or that they don’t care. It’s just that, here, it’s harder to help. First off, there are too many opportunities to help, so at some point they stop turning into unique cries for help and blend into the background, like a fire hydrant. But when you do offer help, you’re often turned down. But if you get past all of that and you help someone, you make yourself vulnerable. Sometimes, the person you help is clingy; sometimes, you come off as creepy. And sometimes — and this is the worst — your heartstrings get caught up in their life and they stay in your mind for weeks.

In short, doing something nice is tough.

So, I thought, what if we did something nice — but took ourselves out of the equation? After all, it’s this random human connection that makes it awkward. It’s the vulnerability that makes it hard. So I started a project called “Smiling Statues.”

I carefully hand-made, hand-painted and hand-smiled 91 figurines, and I scattered them around the city. They were supposed to make people smile. I attached a note asking people to visit a website and tell me how they found it. But that was optional. They could just keep the Smiling Statue with no strings attached.

A handful of people responded with to the website; they seemed pretty happy about finding these little guys.

But, during the project, some of my friends really wanted a statue, so I gave one to them.

Their face lit up. The next day, they always came back to me to tell me what they did with their Smiling Statue.

But here’s the thing: Giving statues to them made me feel uncomfortable. I felt so exposed, because each one had my fingerprints embedded into their skin. They took a long time to make, so when I gave it to a friend, this was a gift — a very personal gift. But seeing my friends smile, I realized this was what this project was really about. But it cost me something I initially didn’t want to give away: my vulnerability.

In a way, anonymously leaving the statues on the street was a lot like walking by the woman who tripped and silently wishing her well. It was like passing karma. It didn’t cost me anything, other than a few cheap supplies and a bit of my time. But giving one to my friends required me to give a little part of myself. And I guess that’s what is so hard to do.

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