Yesterday I was about halfway through a particularly busy Tuesday morning volunteer shift, greeting visitors, answering questions, and running the cash register. A young woman who had been standing a few feet inside the entryway came up to the front desk and said, “They told me I could use a phone here. I don’t know where I am and I’m kind of freaking out here.” Before I could answer her one of the waiting visitors standing nearby handed her his phone and, after she made a call, his wife stepped up to her and started talking to her. They walked out the door together. After I finished with the next group of customers I saw that the woman was sitting down on the bench outside the main door, and some time later the person who had helped her came back in and said, “Did he come and pick her up?” I’m assuming that she was able to make contact with someone, thanks to the kindness of a family of strangers.
Late that evening my wife and I were on our way home from dinner with friends when Suzanne said, “Stop, stop the car!” A man was standing in the middle of the opposing lane of traffic and when I rolled down the window he said, “Can you take me somewhere?” At least I think that’s what he said; his speech was badly slurred, and he was unsteady on his feet.
“Can you take me to sunrise?” he said, and kept on talking, but I could only understand a little of what he said. We got him around to the passenger side so he wouldn’t get hit. Cars were few and far between on that road at that time of night, but even with my flashers on we were at some risk. We decided to put him in the back seat of the car and try to figure things out from there.
He told us his name and said that he was brain damaged and tried to give us directions, but they were contradictory and confusing. He couldn’t remember his age but could remember the year he was born, couldn’t remember his mother’s phone number even though he said he lived with her, and Suzanne and I were becoming more and more worried about him.
Should we try to follow his directions? That didn’t seem like a good plan, since that would have taken us further out into the country, and his directions were confusing at best. Stop the car and put him out? Then he’d be back in the middle of a rural two-lane road with no streetlights and no shoulders late at night. During his ramblings he mentioned one of the main state highways several times, so we took him to an intersection that had gas stations and convenient stores that were open and let him out and gave him some money. Pulling away, we decided to call the police and explain where he was and what little we knew about his situation.
I was and am deeply troubled by these two seemingly unrelated events. It would be easy to dismiss it as coincidence or see it as a metaphor for the times we live in or make it into some kind of political statement, but I don’t see it that way at all.
There are people moving through their lives right next to us who are scared, or hurting, or lost, or damaged in some significant way, and most of the time we don’t even notice. Usually that’s because either we are occupied with tending to our own priorities and, in some cases, fighting our own demons, or those people are able and willing, for whatever reasons, to keep their struggles hidden.
What happened to me yesterday was that two of those battles came into view and presented me with a decision about whether or not to step into their world for a moment. We all have those decisions on occasion.
Do we go to the aid of the attractive, frightened young woman in a brightly lit public area in broad daylight? Do we go to the aid of the dirty, poorly dressed, barely articulate man stumbling around in the middle of the road late at night?
Some decisions are easier than others but, in any case, consciously or unconsciously, we fall back on whatever moral compass or set of principles or core beliefs that we live by to figure out what to do, and in that way I guess the people in distress tell us as much about ourselves as they do about their own troubles. I know for myself that fear is interfering with my moral compass a lot more than it used to; so far it hasn’t kept me from helping, and I guess that’s a good thing, but the thought of just walking on by does occur to me now and then.