Right. What if you saw a stranger viciously screaming at the woman he was with? Would you ignore them? Would you step in? This was my friend’s dilemma on Saturday afternoon. She was on a sidewalk downtown, and the couple were at a nearby streetcar stop. The only other person at the stop was standing as far away from the ragestorm as she could.
Later, my friend posted on Facebook: “What could/should I have done???” (The extra question marks are hers, and serve to illustrate the quandary she felt herself in.)
Jumping into a potentially violent situation doesn’t always work out. Last year, I interviewed a B.C. woman for a magazine story on good deeds. She had immediately intervened when she saw a young lady being violently mugged. It was instinctive, she told me, and she didn’t take time to consider the danger to herself. Then, one of the assailants hit her on the head with a grocery bag of soup cans. And she was so severely injured, she thought she’d reached the end of the line.
For another magazine article a couple of years ago, I researched the stories of a range of people who had put themselves at risk to help a stranger who was being attacked. Disturbingly, many of these would-be saviours had been seriously hurt and even killed as a consequence. An RCMP constable told me these violent situations are too unpredictable. She added, “The RCMP would never encourage a bystander to risk their own safety to intervene.” There may be other, safer ways to help that can still make a difference.
But we aren’t always thinking about sensible advice when these situations explode in front of us. Folks are often compelled to help. They say they couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t do something. (That is, unless you’re Seinfeld’s George Costanza – who, when a small kitchen fire started, quickly trampled a bunch of seniors and children in his haste to save his own skin.)
Back to my friend on the sidewalk. Her Facebook buddies offered various suggestions for actions she could have taken, from barging right in and interrupting the tumultuous tête-à-tête, to going straight to the police. (Interestingly, one of the friends who voted for police sounded half-apologetic: “I know, that’s wimpy, but you never really know what the person will do.”)
For my friend some of the advice was moot, as she uses a wheelchair and the streetcar area wasn’t accessible, so she couldn’t have gotten close to the situation. But clearly she was fretting about how she could have helped all the same.
I love what this says about human nature. Our instincts to save other people are so strong, we feel guilty and remorseful when we don’t get involved. Even when the experts say not to. Even when it would mean putting ourselves in grave danger.
I don’t think any of us can really know what we’d do in that kind of situation until we’re in it. But I’m willing to bet there are more of us who would dive in, or at least dial 911, than stampede our way out the door. It’s just the way we’re made.