Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Fear of Acting

Hard to be interdependent in a suspicious world … hell, it’s hard to even show you care. I was thinking about this the other day when I saw a parked car with its headlights on. The car was outside a house and parked in such a way as if it belonged there. I took a chance, walked up the path and rang the buzzer. The front door was made of glass giving me a view of the small and tidy closed-in alcove with the shoes and jackets of outdoor wear. After some time, the solid inner door slowly opened. A man appeared. He seemed confused to see a person standing there. He hesitantly walked forward. His face held a combination of what seemed like fear and suspicion and, as he got closer, maybe some inner admonishment. It was if he was asking himself: What am I scared of? It’s a just a woman. His partner followed behind him, looking even more tentative. I smiled in hopes of easing their anxiety. He opened the door, eyes still wary, ready to slam it perhaps if I was more dangerous than my looks warranted. “Yes?” he asked. There was more confusion as I gave them the info and then, with vague suspicion still on their faces, they thanked me and I quickly went on my way. No need to have them thinking it was a ruse to get them out of their house.

Since I wrote the blog in August about taking responsible action, I’ve made a quest, so to speak, to not only step up to the plate when needed but to look for the plate — a sometimes risky business. I remember doing a similar deed about thirty years ago. I was walking down Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End when I noticed a fairly expensive parked car with its lights on. I walked over to the driver side and tried the door. It was locked but I still felt good that I had tried to help someone. No sooner had I taken my hand from the handle when two well-dressed business men came strolling up to me: "too bad you found it locked, eh? Couldn’t get your hands on it." Their accusation shocked me but also embarrassed and angered me. How dare they think I was trying to steal their car. I wanted to respond with something hard and biting but all I could say was: Your lights are on; I was trying to turn them off. I walked away, hating the shame and vowing never to do that again. And, I didn’t. We learn from experience, don’t we?

People tend to assume the worst. I recently listened to a podcast on mindfulness. One of the things the researcher, Daniel Siegel, stated was that our minds are programmed to remember negative things: it is good for survival to remember that tigers can attack and dogs can bite. I am taking a small leap here but I wonder if we are also programmed to assume the worst?

This tendency to assume the worst or, perhaps better said, to be fearful of the worst was just witnessed in Foshon, China. I am sure many of you saw the awful video of the toddler, Yueyue, getting run over twice and then eighteen people walking by and not doing anything. (This was captured on street surveillance camera.) It’s a stomach wrenching video to watch so I suggest instead you read an article by Globe and Mail’s China correspondent, Mark McKinnon. He thankfully shoots down the racist comments about the Chinese being less moral and gives two possible reasons why this tragedy occurred.

1) “The legal system [in China] is unpredictable and unfair to those without money and political connections. Getting involved can often get you in trouble.”

2) An authoritarian state, such as China, instils fear in it’s citizens from acting, doing and /or getting noticed.

I would add to these two points the “bystander effect” where “[t]he mere presence of other bystanders greatly decreases intervention.” This is a well documented and researched phenomena instigated by the horrors of what happened to New York’s Kitty Genovese. The bystander effect has been witnessed all over the world — ignoring pain, hurt and trauma in another is not an ethnic trait.

There is, however, a commonality to why people do not respond or help another — fear. I will let you read these stories and draw your own conclusions but until we get over the fear of acting, of risking responsibility, of being seen… our humanity will suffer.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, there are reasons why we are reluctant to get involved. And fear is probably, as you point out, the basis of all of them.
    It is sad that our large communities have become so impersonal. If we really saw each other as people who we knew and cared about, I believe our fears would disappear. This still happens in smaller communities where people respond to others because they see them as part of who they are - their community. For them, interdependence is not a theory - it is an everyday reality. Could we re-create this in our larger population centeres with mini-communities? Maybe!