Monday, 3 September 2018

Why we don't help and what we can do about it

My family and I have just returned from a very rich and varied week in New York, where we did all the usual tourist things, including a visit to the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, a trip up the Empire State Building and a boat ride out to Liberty Island. This was all very wonderful and enriching, but what I want to share with you is a little incident that I must admit wasn’t one of my finest moments but gave me plenty of cause for reflection. We were just heading into the Coney Island subway after a happy afternoon spent on the beach, when a row broke out between a man and a woman who were waiting to board a bus. I’ve no idea what it was about, but suffice to say voices were raised, and there was a fair amount of pushing and shoving, which ended up with the woman falling over with the trolley she had with her. It was a slo-mo fall, which would have been quite comical if it hadn’t been so sad, but what happened next was remarkable. Nothing happened. The other people in the queue and standing around stood looking at her as she lay on the ground. Worse still, so did I. I was no more than 20 yards away and could easily have darted over to help her up, but I didn’t. She was eventually helped to her feet by a young man, and a police officer strolled over to sort things out. It was a minor incident, but I felt very remorseful as we caught the train and started ruminating. Why didn’t I help? I can only conclude that it was what you might call the Somebody Else’s Problem syndrome. I didn’t know her, she wasn’t a family member or a friend, so she wasn’t in my immediate sphere of concern. Had it been one of my kids, you can rest assured that I would have been straight in there. But this stranger somehow didn’t merit my care or attention.

OK, so this reflects badly on me, but I dare say I wouldn’t have been alone in my reaction. After all, how often do we pass homeless people by, for instance, without even acknowledging them. They have nothing to do with us, so why bother? A more creative response is suggested by 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva, author of a famous work on how to lead an ideal Buddhist life. He makes the point that, if we have a pain in our foot, we will act to alleviate it, so why don’t we respond equally quickly to the pain of others, to whom we are connected by our common humanity and shared desire to be happy? The problem, he suggests, lies in a failure of imagination, which is the basis of empathy. As the poet Shelley says: A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.” This I see as being one of the primary tasks of my practice as a Buddhist. 

Fortunately, I have a tried and tested meditation to help me out. In the metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, we bring to mind various people, some we know well and some we don’t, some we like and some we don’t, and simply wish them well. We step out of the narratives of preference and self-interest and try to see them as human beings just like us, with the same hopes and fears, desire to be loved and not to suffer.

My point is that you don’t necessarily have to sit down to meditate to do this. It just requires awareness of others and a willingness to see what we have in common. I wish I’d recalled this in those few moments when I was standing looking at that poor lady on the ground. But next time I’m resolved to do better. And I would really suggest that you do the same. When, for instance, you pass that homeless person in a doorway, really try to see them as a fellow human being. Even if you don’t want to give them money, which I think is a perfectly legitimate choice, make eye contact, greet them, make them feel seen. If someone is in distress, stop and help them. You will feel better, more connected, and so will they. Everyone wins, and the world is a better place for it.