Friday’s commute on the train was remarkably… unremarkable. Nothing witty, funny, or bizarre was seen or overheard. No one was wielding a machete. No one was searching for unclaimed treasure. Nothing worth sharing…
until I got to the station.
I tend to ride on the last car because it’s usually less crowded. As a result, I typically find myself at the very back of a group of 100+ people on the station platform after getting off of the train. Like cattle, the heard always makes its way down the platform and crosses a bridge to the parking lot. If anything interesting is happening on the bridge, I’m always among the last to see it.
On this day, there was a man on the bridge. I don’t know his name. But we’ll call him Moses, because the crowd was miraculously parting around him. He was wearing a bright blue jacket, which wasn’t nearly heavy enough for the plummeting temperature that evening. He was older—probably in his late 60’s or early 70’s—with a white beard and weathered face. He was lying flat on his stomach, a few feet away from a walker. He was unconscious.
No one stopped.
This bears repeating: An old man was flat on the pavement, unconscious, with a walker about two feet in front of him. Among the crowd of 100+ people walking by,
No one even slowed down. Everyone took enough notice to change course and walk around him. Some even allowed their head to pivot enough to stare as they passed. But in the end, not a single person broke stride.
I wish that this story came with some kind of unexpected, lighthearted twist (as is typical of my stories on the train). It would be great if this turned out to be a prank, a misunderstanding, or some strange bit of street theater. But it wasn’t. It was just a man lying unconscious on the sidewalk, with dozens of people stepping around him.
I also wish that I were writing from a moral high ground, explaining to you that I was the one who stopped to speak up and take action in the moment.
But the truth is, I wasn’t.
Rather, it was a woman a few paces behind me who was the first to stop and contemplate doing anything at all. She looked as though she was trying to decide whether she should stop and check on him, or mind her business and move on as the rest of the crowd had done. I was well on my way to joining the rest of the crowd when the woman and I made eye contact long enough for us to both silently say, “someone should do something.” I walked back to stand with her, and we were soon joined by the very last man to get off of the train. I was ultimately the one who gently shook the man until his eyes opened to ask if he was okay, and stayed until someone caught the attention of a nearby RTD officer to help him. Once I knew that he was going to receive the help that he needed, I left.
As I reflected on it after the fact, the most difficult part was acknowledging that I was almost among those who kept walking. In fact, I had kept walking. I was a good two or three steps past him when that woman stopped. I probably wouldn’t have stopped if she hadn’t. And if she hadn’t stopped, yet another trainload of passengers easily could have walked by. But why?
The prevailing assumption among passersby was likely that he was a drifter, sheltering himself under the roof of the bridge for the night. Admittedly, this was my first thought upon seeing him too. This was in spite of the fact that it isn’t common to find people sleeping in this heavily-patrolled spot, and there were none of the other telltale signs. No shopping cart full of belongings. No cardboard sign. No cup full of change.
But even if any of these assumptions had been correct, why would we simply walk by in such an explicitly dire circumstance? It’s one thing to keep our hard-earned dollars to ourselves when asked if we can spare some cash. It’s another thing altogether to walk past a human being lying face-down on the pavement. Why wouldn’t we stop to ask that person if he’s okay? Or at least check his pulse to see if he froze to death? It seems that we’ve collectively decided that some lives are simply not worth breaking stride for.
And when I say “we,” of course I mean myself, and the other train-goers that day. But I also mean you. I mean all of us. It’s easy to read this story and “know” that you, as a respectable human being, would have stopped. It’s easy to think that you aren’t among “those” people who didn’t. And I’m sure right now you can make a lot of assumptions about whom “those” people might have been.
But I’m certain that, if asked the day before what they would do if they saw an old man lying unconscious on the sidewalk, any of those 100+ people would have said that they would do something to help. They would have said that they’d call an ambulance, or try to wake him, or (prematurely) perform CPR, or something else… they would have said anything except, “keep walking.”
I can assure you that, among those 100+ people, there were baby boomers, gen x’ers, and millennials. There were Republicans and Democrats. There were Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Atheists. They were teachers, engineers, accountants, and construction workers. They were burger lovers and vegetarians. Some lived in the city, while others were going home to the suburbs. Some were rich, while others live paycheck to paycheck. Some were locals. Others were in town on business, or visiting family for the holidays. Collectively, they seemed to have no one trait in common… except that they all kept walking.
I’m also confident that this tragedy isn’t isolated to that one bridge, or this one city. I’m sure that this kind of thing can happen in your hometown. I’m confident that it happens every day.
People probably had plenty of reasons to keep walking. Perhaps some passersby consciously declined to stop because they assumed that he was subsidizing a liquor habit with their tax dollars. Maybe they thought that he overdosed on the latest trending street drug, and that he—both figuratively and literally—was now lying in the bed that he made for himself. Or maybe they were simply in a hurry to pick up their daughter (as I was), and they didn’t bother at all to imagine the circumstances that put him on the pavement. It seems highly unlikely that any of them contemplated the stroke that probably put him there.
But regardless of what we assumed, we all somehow decided for one reason or another that walking on was either more prudent or more important than stopping to check on him. We, as a society, have decided that some human beings aren’t worth the change in our pockets or the minutes out of our day. We have decided that some lives just don’t matter.
What I’m unsure of is how we got to this point. How do our most basic human values become so contextual that dozens of people independently decide that the life and well-being of another person isn’t worth our time, effort, or consideration? Because we have, in fact, reached that point. Or maybe we’ve always been there, and we have yet to progress past it. Either way, where do we go from here? How do we move forward?
The experience has been impossibly difficult to process. Even as someone who teaches bystander intervention for a living, I was astounded by what I personally experienced on that bridge (earlier that very same day, I showed a video on bystander intervention to a group of faculty members in a training). When one person walked by, the next hundred followed suit. But as soon as one person stopped, the two remaining people around her were also eager to help.
I don’t want you to walk around the city searching for lost souls to save, or to give all of your money to charity and live in a box. I’m not asking you to vote for “socialist” politicians, or to quit your job and volunteer in a homeless shelter. But I do hope you will search for your own way to help us all move forward as a society. I hope that you will at least take a moment to think about what you can do to help when you see another human being in danger, distress, or merely in circumstances worse than your own. I hope that you will consider whether someone else needs your spare time, resources, or attention more than you do.
I hope that you will be the one who stops, so that others can follow your lead.
And I certainly hope that I will be that person too.