How a Giant Crowd Reminded Me to go With the Flow

Duomo in Siena

Contrade Flags

I’m wedged between a sweaty Italian who’s wearing a flag for a t-shirt (red and yellow checkered with a snail, or chiocciola -pronounced ‘kee-oh-choh-luh’- in the upper right corner), proudly shouting his contrada’s theme song, and a plump English woman who says to me, “I’m sorry, I’m not the one who’s pushing.”

The Italian forces his way past me. I want to kick him. Ten of his pushy friends follow.

“We’ll all get there, chill out!” I say with an air of annoyance.

Over 50,000 people enter Siena’s Piazza del Campo to watch the Il Palio horse race twice each summer, this is the final race of 2011 and a feeling of tense anticipation permeates the stadium.

We are packed together like Styrofoam balls in a Christmas package. People propel back and forth through a thin human vestibule that leads into the center ring, like too many pinballs in a machine. Three women and a boy cry out as the crowd crushes them.

Someone elbows me in the rib cage, I can’t breathe. A teenager lets out an agonizing shriek; his eyes are terrorized, yet vacant, as if he has left his body to cope with what he must feel is a traumatic experience.

90% of the people flow with the speed of the crowd; the other 10% shove, push and pull to get somewhere we’re all trying to go – the center circle.

A fight breaks out across the arena.

I now understand how people get trampled to death in big crowds.

This would go so much smoother if everyone just worked together, I think.

Breathe, I tell myself. I smile and laugh at this ridiculous situation. People around me start to laugh too. It’s like we’re flowing together (and kind of enjoying ourselves) in a sea of madness.

Lesson Learned:

Everything in life has a natural order, or flow, but sometimes we disrupt the natural order because we put our own needs above others.

For example, I used to speed and weave through traffic. Was I really going to get to my destination that much sooner than everybody else? Probably not. But I did manage to upset a lot of people and make myself anxious and stressed while doing it.

I didn’t win with a “me first” motto.

I felt horrible when I tried to control what I couldn’t. When we cut corners, lie, or cheat, even in small ways, not only do others suffer, but we also suffer –usually the most.

Children’s writer, A.A. Milne illustrated this idea in Pooh’s Little Instruction Book:

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”

Like a river flows so does life. If we can simply hop in and be guided by the current, rather than fight against it, we effortlessly arrive at the ocean – our destination – at the moment we’re supposed to, and without headache.

So, be like a river and remember to go with the flow.

My ribs will thank you for it.

[CLICK HERE to see insider video footage from this event – Il Palio di Siena, 2011]

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