How do I know who I am or how I will act until I am faced with a challenge? Am I brave? Will I stand up for someone who is being treated unfairly or turn away in fear? Will I run towards someone who needs help or will I freeze? Do heroes know they are heroes before they run towards danger?
Three times in the last several weeks my body acted before my brain knew what I was doing. The first time a little girl on her bicycle hit a telephone pole and fell over. The second time two young boys pounded out of the park in a panic, and finally a slightly older woman slipped and fell in the coffee area at Barnes and Noble. In each case something happened and my body reacted by running toward the people involved. I was moving before I have fully comprehended that something was wrong.
While I do know basic first aid I am not an EMT and have no special training that would cause me to respond in this way. There is no obvious pattern; I ran toward a little girl, two young boys and an older woman. In the first case the girl’s mother was running right behind me. I reached the girl first, but her mother was only seconds behind me. She did say thank you but let me know that I was not needed.
In the second situation the boys lived in the neighborhood and I escorted them home, listening to their tale of fear and comforting them. When we arrived at their house I met a disbelieving rather irritated mother who wondered why I had bothered. She barely said thank-you and dismissed the boy’s fears as nonsense.
The final event was a bit different. The woman was alone, carrying two bags with books she had purchased and walking with a cane. It was only afterwards when I was sitting talking with her that I discovered this was her first trip out the house alone in weeks after a long illness. She, like the children was a bit embarrassed as well as frightened. She was also profoundly grateful for the support. She did need a bit of first-aid and I after she rested I helped her to her car.
The only commonality was that people around me needed human comfort and support, and without stopping to think I ran towards that need. Clearly I was in no danger at any point. I was not running into a burning house or into an armed confrontation. In each case there were other people around and I was the first on the scene. I was not a hero in any sense of the word. However I did learn something valuable about myself.
There is a psychological principle called the bystander effect. Individuals are all less likely to respond to a person in need if other people are around. In fact, the larger the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that anyone will help. People have died when surrounded by a crowd of people, each one thinking that someone else would step in. And if no one moves to help, most people decide that there must be no need, since we tend to judge situations based on the reactions of others.
So what does this say about me? Perhaps I learned to offer assistance from my father who donated blood regularly (which I also do) and who I watched help people in physical need, even once his body was wracked with arthritic pain. He could still direct a situation with the power of his voice, and often did. Or perhaps I am just wired this way having grown up hearing stories of the Warsaw ghetto and concentration camps where my family perished. Or perhaps my empathic nature causes me to feel the pain of others, pulling me to help. No matter the reason, I consider myself blessed, because my willingness to help others means that I have changed the world for the good in some small way.