Dare not to be indifferent

When faced with human suffering, we can be crippled by indecision and embarrassment. But if we choose to act, says David Servan-Schreiber, it won’t just be the sufferer we benefit

Saturday night on the Underground. Donald and Sophie are on their way to dinner with friends. After sitting down in the carriage, they discover a body curled up at their feet. A homeless person. How did he get there? How long has he been lying there? Is he dead? They look around: nobody moves; everyone avoids looking at the body. Donald and Sophie don’t know what to do either.

In a study from the 1970s, young Christian seminarians were assigned a course to teach on the parable of the Good Samaritan. To make sure that they would be in a hurry, just like the priest and the Levite in the story, they received directions to their classroom that intentionally allowed them only just enough time to arrive at the appointed hour. In the last stairway a body was lying on the ground. More than half the seminarians did not stop to help him, not even to see if he was still alive. They probably considered it more important to carry the Word than to assist.

Indifference is easy to understand — we are always on our way to something important. We are all caught up in a network of constraints that will not yield to unforeseen circumstances, especially those of someone we don’t know. And who are we to step in to help? We aren’t officials — Underground security staff, police or paramedics. If we take an interest in this man, won’t we be getting involved in something that isn’t our business? And what can we do for him? We waver between impotence and discouragement. This isn’t the first tramp, or the last, lying on the floor in the Tube. Why risk arriving late when this case is only a drop in the ocean of human misery we can do nothing about?

Donald glances around. Nobody looks in their direction. His indifference seems to be shared by the whole carriage. Suddenly, without really knowing why, he leans over the face, puts his hand on the motionless palm, speaks softly: ‘What’s wrong? Do you need help?’ After a few moments, the man murmurs, without opening his eyes: ‘I haven’t eaten for three days. I don’t have any strength left.’ He smells of alcohol. Donald knows what happens when you drink on an empty stomach. ‘Are you dizzy? Would you like me to call someone?’

Already, the young man seated facing Donald has stood up and leaned over. ‘Can I do something?’ A woman approaches. ‘Why not help him get off at the next station? We could call someone there.’ Now all eyes are on the scene, almost sorry not to be helping relieve this specimen of human suffering themselves, not to be participating in what they all would have liked to do, but had not done, held back by the threads of good — and bad — reasons that had run through their mind.

A number of passengers helped carry the man onto the platform. Another passenger rang the bell to alert station security and then called the emergency services. Several people got out of the carriage to make sure that he was taken care of. For these few minutes, the stricken man became a part of their world, of their concerns. How did they shift so quickly from total indifference to all this attention?

Donald and Sophie arrived a little late at their friends’. Lighthearted. As if the man had given them a gift. The gift of feeling a little more human and, especially, of seeing that it doesn’t take much to awaken the humanity in everyone. Usually it’s enough to dare. To give oneself permission not to be indifferent.