Why People Don’t Help When They Can
As a therapist, I am a keen observer of human behavior and interactions. I have long been fascinated by what makes people tick. Sometimes I am in awe of the altruism and generosity I witness and sometimes shake my head in disappointment, when those who have the capacity to help don’t always. Then again, I freely admit my biases and judgements, so if this resonates with you, it is not meant to shame, but rather to call on a common humanity.
A few years ago, my friend Ondreah and I were on our way to an event at one of our favorite retreat centers called Mt. Eden, as I steered my Jeep into a gas station once we crossed the bridge that brought us from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. Anyone who lives in the Keystone State knows that the Garden State boasts gas prices that can be as much as 20 cents a gallon cheaper. As the attendant was pumping the gas (there are no self-serve gas stations there, hence the bumper sticker that reads “Jersey girls don’t pump their own gas.”), I noticed a bare-chested man wearing shorts, stumbling in the street and then collapsing. It was a scorchingly hot summer day, so his plight felt more immediate. I dialed 911 and described the scenario. I was transferred to a local dispatcher and once again described what I was witnessing playing out before my eyes.
By this point, the man had rounded the corner facing the bridge and literally stepped in front of a car that was stopped and draped himself across the hood and then slid back down to the street. Carrying the phone, I walked toward him and at the request of the police officer, I handed my phone to the bridge guard and I leaned down to speak with the man who identified himself and declared that he was drunk. I could hear a siren in the distance, heralding the arrival of help. Then, I walked back to the car and we were on our way.
A short while after we arrived at the gathering, I ran into someone I knew, and I described what had transpired. His response surprised me. He replied that it would have been ok either way — whether or not I chose to help. I was incredulous. I was taught by my parents that if someone was in need and you could help, it was your role to do so.
I remember many years ago, again at a gas station (I see a pattern developing here) in a rather dangerous neighborhood in Philadelphia, I witnessed someone being robbed. Back then, there weren’t cell phones, so I found a pay phone and called the police from there.
I believe that we are not responsible FOR each other, but rather, TO each other. We live on this island Earth together. How is it possible for someone to walk away if they are able to lend a hand? If I couldn’t intervene directly, I would always seek someone who could.
Remember Kitty Genovese? The following excerpt is from an article in the New York Times written by Martin Gansberg on March 27, 1964:
For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.