There are times in our lives when we come to a crossroads. We can choose to go one way or another. Recently I came to such a corner, literally, when stopped at a red light. Across the road on a curb sat a large man, feet stretched out in front of him. He did not look in obvious distress, no sign of an accident or fallen bike. But clearly something was wrong. As I sat in my car at the light, he sat on the corner. People drove right by him. People walked right by him.
The light turned green and I became one of the cars that passed him by. And then, I turned around. I parked my car and went over to this gentleman and asked if he needed assistance. He looked up at me and mumbled something as the smell of alcohol could be immediately detected. I wondered what circumstance proceeded this moment. What life experiences led this man to this corner where he sat, now incoherent and vulnerable? I extended my hand and introduced myself. “Hi. I’m Rachel. What’s your name Sir?”
The gentleman responded with his own outstretched hand, “Paul.” He then fumbled with two 20 dollar bills, trying to communicate something. I managed to make out that the police had sent a taxi for him, and that he had money to pay. I wondered if somewhere in this inebriated state, was a man of dignity who wanted me to know that he was not a charity case.
But what happened next expanded this circle of two, Paul and me. Within a moment of stopping to help this gentleman, four other cars stopped and asked if I needed their assistance. Young, old, black, white, male, female, all represented. The first car was driven by an elderly woman. “Do you need a hand?” she yelled from her window. “I’ve just had knee surgery but I can get out and help if you need it.” I was moved by her offer. I thanked her and explained there was a taxi on its way.
Within seconds, two young women stopped their car and offered the same help. I again stated my gratitude and explained that help was on its way. Again, only seconds later, another two young women pulled up. The scene repeated itself. Then, from the opposite direction, a large expensive looking truck pulled up and a gentleman asked if we needed assistance. Again, I offered my thanks and told him that help was near.
As a taxi could now be seen approaching, I told Paul we had to get up as his ride was here. Paul wobbled, stumbled to his feet, and before becoming fully upright gently fell over as if in slow motion. As he rolled toward the curb where the taxi was approaching, I grabbed his arm to keep him from falling off of the sidewalk and into the street. The taxi pulled up and a kind young man immediately came around to the side to help me. We were able to get Paul into the cab, and off they went.
As I got into my car to return to work, I was filled with the experience that had just transpired. How is it that after being completely ignored, not one but eight people assisted this man in clear need?
I was at the corner of us and them. Paul remained a ‘them’ until I turned my car around and made him an ‘us.’ Our discomfort, or distaste, places others in a safe and distant category: Them. We are then absolved of any responsibility to act. If we saw a family member, a friend, or a co-worker on the street, we would simply approach them and ask how they are doing or if they need assistance. But a stranger can represent danger, anxiety, or just too much discomfort to take a moment to say hello.
I, too, passed by this stranger. Then I made the conscious decision that he was an ‘us,’ a member of my community, and not a ‘them.’ It was then natural to say, “Hello sir, can I help?” Perhaps something about me now looked familiar enough for others to stop and offer assistance. In literally seconds, a flow of kindness and compassion was unleashed in car after car. We came together and the ‘us’ was expanded.
We all stand on that corner. We all make the choice.