What I was Thinking When I Walked by the Man Who Was Lying on the Street Who I Thought May Have Been Dying

A study released in 1973 revealed that most people who are in a hurry will not stop to help a person who is obviously in distress.  This study was specifically looking at religious people. I have seen other real life stories that are similar. I found it hard to believe that people either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care enough to do something about it.  What were they thinking?

Likewise, when hearing the Parable of the Good Samaritan I thought it strange that so many religious leaders would walk by an injured person and it was only an outcast of society that stopped.  What were they thinking?

Here’s what I was thinking two weeks ago when I was the person who walked by a man lying on the sidewalk during the middle of the day.

“Is he sleeping?  No, even homeless people don’t sleep on the sidewalk in the sun during the middle of the day…they sleep on grass, in parks in the shade. Should I do something?  What should I do? I could offer him water.   I don’t have water.  Should I ask the guys who are talking on the corner if they know what’s going on with the man?  No, they might think I was crazy.  I have to get to the bus.  If I miss this bus it’s an hour until the next one and I need to get my two-year old home for her nap.   She’ll be a terror if she doesn’t get her nap.  How can I not do something?  What if he’s dying?  What if he’s already dead?  What if he’s dying and he would have lived if I had stopped to help?  Will it really matter if he dies now or in a couple of weeks?  He’s a human.  Human dignity requires that I do something.  The bus…we’re going to be late.  What would I do? Do I kneel down and ask if he’s ok?  What if he doesn’t respond?  Do I shake him? Should I touch him? Check his pulse? On his wrist? His neck? What would I do with my daughter?  There’s that family that I just saw praying with a homeless man a half a block down.  They’ll walk by here in a minute…I bet they’ll do something.”

I thought all of those things and kept on walking. 

There is no way to minimize that fact that I walked by a potentially dead or dying man and did nothing.  There is nothing that differentiates what I did or from what the Priest and the Levite did in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

I was not the neighbor, the Samaritan, that Jesus affirmed.

I was not the hero in the story.

I was the jerk.  The person you look at and say, “Really?  How could you do that?!” And the disgust you feel is every  bit justified.

I am disgusted with myself.

The irony?  I was walking to the bus stop from a work day at our church.  We are moving to a bigger location just down the street from our current location.  Our church is a mixture of all kinds of people, mostly from the neighborhood.  It’s a place where that man could have walked in and felt comfortable and if he had, I probably would have talked to him.  But when I saw him lying on the street I walked right on by.

As I got to the bus stop, just a few blocks later, I called my husband, Cory, with the intention of asking him if I was a Pharisee and what I should do.  But just after I had given him a brief explanation of what happened he asked, “So you want me to go check on him?  Where was he again?”  I told him and he hopped on his bike and was there in just a few minutes.  My husband was all ready to be the neighbor and that wasn’t even why I had called him.

By the time Cory had gotten to him, the ambulance was arriving which meant that someone else had already begun addressing the situation and called for help before I walked by.  This was a very good thing for the man.  And it was probably those guys hanging out on the corner just talking that I thought about asking if they knew what was going on.  Cory said the man who had been lying down was awake and talking but seemed a little incoherent.  He wasn’t doing well but he was alive and medical help was there.

This week I was reading Martin Luther King Jr’s sermon on the Good Samaritan. One of the points he made was that we tend to be less concerned with others when they are different than us.  I grew up in a multicultural low socio-economic neighborhood and played with kids of different cultures and I’ve never really thought of myself as prejudice in any significant way.  But as I was reading his sermon I became quite certain that if it were a woman in her 30’s (someone who was like me) I would have stopped but because it was an older man who looked like he lived on the streets (someone different than me), I didn’t .

I’m a jerk.  Or at least I acted very much like a jerk in that moment and it revealed some things about me that I really don’t like.  The only mild comfort I find is that I know I’m the kind of person that doesn’t always do well the first time I’m faced with a situation.  After I’ve been taken off guard I need time to regroup and come up with a plan, what I should have done, then the next time I encounter that situation I handle it pretty well.  So, I know next time I encounter someone on the street who may be dead or dying I’ll handle it a little better.  But that doesn’t change what I did in this situation.  And it doesn’t change the fact that my belief in his value and his dignity as a human being wasn’t big enough to overcome my confusion, uncertainty and fear.

It’s understandable why I didn’t act.  I was with a toddler.  I was in a rush.  I was caught off guard.

But it’s not okay. 

I lucked out that someone had already called the ambulance.  I lucked out that my husband was close enough that he could do something.  I lucked out.

But that doesn’t make it okay.

As I post this I am afraid of two responses.  First, I’m afraid that people will try to console me by telling me that it wasn’t so bad.  After all, someone had already called the ambulance.  And, for the man, in that moment, that’s true in regards to his physical well-being.  But I missed an opportunity to engage him, to touch him.  He didn’t appear to be aware that I had walked by.  If he had been aware, just knowing that someone had walked by without stopping would have communicated to him that he wasn’t worth stopping for. Thankfully, he was taken care of, but that doesn’t address the issue of the ugliness within my soul. I’m not going to beat myself up forever, but I believe I need to fully accept and mourn my own ugliness and sinfulness so that I can fully repent.

Second, I’m afraid that people will be horrified and that they won’t like me anymore.  Because I think they should be horrified.  And I think they should like me a little less.  But that doesn’t feel good.

But I am sharing because I feel compelled to.  I need to process by writing.  I want you to learn from my mistake.  I want you to be more prepared than I was.

So, what would I do if I could do it over again?  I would say to the men on the corner, “Excuse me, do you guys know anything about that man?  He looks like he’s in trouble.”  If they said, “Yes, we’ve already called 911.” I’d go on my way.  If they said, “No.”  I’d access my first aid training, and say, “Sir, are you okay?  Are you okay?”  And if he didn’t answer I’d shake him gently.  I’d ask the men if one of them would call 911.  Then I would see if he was breathing and check his pulse.  And I’d wait there with him until the ambulance arrived.   Then I would call my husband because I was all shaken up from the experience and I’d wait another hour with a cranky toddler because I had missed my bus.  But I’d catch the next bus and my toddler would eventually get a nap. And I would go home knowing that when I saw Jesus lying on the street I gave him the help he needed.

Nothing heroic.

Nothing amazing.

Just do what any neighbor would do if they saw their neighbor lying on the street.


One thought on “What I was Thinking When I Walked by the Man Who Was Lying on the Street Who I Thought May Have Been Dying

  1. MIL August 11, 2012 / 7:16 pm

    Yep I have been there too. I too called my wonderful husband who came to the man’s rescue. Sometimes as a woman we do not have the same “freedom” a man has. I still felt terrible that I could not stop.

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