The Decision to Help

In my Psych 101 text there was a brief out line of the story of the murder of Kitty Genovese in March, 1964.  The story was an illustration of a certain appalling phenomenon of group psychology – the assumption that, when you’re surrounded by others and something happens that demands a reaction, “someone else will handle it.”  It’s a mentality that persists today, disappointingly, but hardly surprisingly – if it was happening then, of course it’s happening now.

I felt so grown up when I went off to university the first year.  When I think back on the thoughts and feelings I had now, however, I seem to myself almost painfully naive.  That story in my first year textbook really stuck with my 19-year-old self – obviously, since I can still call it up today.  At the time, it seemed totally unbelievable to me that 38 individuals in this woman’s neighbourhood could hear her cries for help and nobody did anything.  In fact, no one so much as called the police, so that, when Ms. Genovese’s murderer was scared off the first time, he was able to come back 20 minutes later and finish what he started. I know, this is old news to most of you, but at the time I’d never heard the story before, and I was horrified.  (Actually, thinking about it now, I’m pretty glad I was horrified at 19 – I’m glad I still had that much innocence left for that long, and I hope I never lose the capacity to be horrified by other people, strange as that may sound.)

What the story did for me was galvanize a resolution that stays with me to this day.  I will not be one of those 38 people.  And this is a resolution that I have called myself to act upon in the past.  It has seen me hovering just inside my apartment door with my phone in hand, listening to the yelling going on across the hall, silently bearing witness just in case it became violent (which thankfully it didn’t).  It has seen me and my brother help a sobbing woman get home on the streets of Munich and 3AM, despite a language barrier, an angry waiting husband, a tag-along drug addict, and the police (yeah, that’s a pretty long story).  I can also happily say that I’ve been in situations where, while ready to help, other people had already stepped in – sometimes the best thing you can do is just stay out of the way and monitor, as long as others have it under control.

I learned First Aid when I was eleven, so that I could be an extra-responsible babysitter.  I haven’t revisited those skills since then, and it’s something I should have done long ago.  Thomas and I are finally taking a course this weekend, and doing all the pre-reading exercises in the evenings this week has got me thinking about my resolution again in a bit of different light.  Being ready to call the cops is one thing, being trained to help in an emergency is quite another.  I’m realizing that it’s a huge responsibility to prepare yourself in this way, and the more I read, the more I hope I’m never in a situation where I have to use it.  At the same time, I feel like my resolution to be a helper needs some real back up – if I’m going to talk this talk, I’d better know how to walk.  On the other hand, I can see where taking on this responsibility might not be for everyone.

What I do wish, though, is that more people would give some serious thought to how they would act in a crisis, and establish early on at least a minimum of help they’re willing to give.  After all, tips to police can be anonymous if you don’t want to be identified.  For myself, I feel like the resolution not to walk away from a potential crisis made it easier for me to decide what to do when I was faced with one.  And I’m pretty sure that in one case I prevented someone from getting hurt.  At the very least I proved to strangers and myself that sometimes the other people who surround us daily actually do give a shit.

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