My walk home from dinner tonight reminded me of this Louis CK bit:
My belly was full of vegan gastro-pub fare and a beer brewed less than six miles from the hip restaurant, which was packed with people even on a Tuesday night.
I was walking east on Sunset Boulevard and saw him from 200 yards away, staggering. I watched him drop to the ground, slowly, deliberately. For a second, I thought maybe he had dropped something and his hands were groping the ground in search of the lost trinket, key, coin.
I kept walking. Realized he wasn’t looking for anything, wasn’t getting back up.
And I thought to myself, “I wish I could cross the street before I get to him.” Just like the fucking Levite and priest.
I felt afraid, though there were dozens of people also making their ways east and west on Sunset.
I felt helpless. And ashamed.
I watched as the man sat, then slowly lowered himself to lie on the ground, his hands resting beneath his cheek. Peacefully asleep? Passed out drunk? Dying?
I don’t know. I won’t know, because I didn’t stop.
Yeah, I paused. I looked worried. I looked back a few times to see if he was still there. To see if someone else had stopped. Maybe that kindly Hispanic grandma? Maybe that young guy, headed into a convenience store, who also noticed the laying-down-man?
I didn’t just think “ew” and move on. I’m not completely heartless.
Here are some of the thoughts I had:
- What if he’s crazy or drunk and hurts me?
- What if I ask him if he needs help and he doesn’t answer?
- What if I ask him if he needs help and he does answer?
- What help can I possibly give? I don’t have any money, or a car, and I don’t know where he can go to get help. I’m basically useless.
- Ohmygod, Jesus would never walk by the way I’m doing. Jesus would stop.
- Why aren’t you stopping? WHY AREN’T YOU STOPPING?
- Should I go back?
- It’s starting to get dark. I don’t want to be out after dark. If I go back, I might get caught up in a whole thing. That makes me feel uncomfortable.
- Should I call the police? Would they even care? I don’t want to give the guy a hard time.
- Gosh, the systems of poverty and mental health and homelessness are so big! I can’t possibly make a dent, I don’t even know how to help one person.
- Remember the starfish story? How throwing one starfish back into the ocean doesn’t make a dent, but makes a difference to that starfish? Dammit, why the hell do you overthink things so much?
- You can’t stop and help every time you see suffering, Sarah. There’s too much. You’ll never get anything done.
And on. And on.
Something similar happened the last time I was in Los Angeles. I was walking downtown, on my way back to the hotel after dinner, and there was a woman laying on the sidewalk in the midst of a busy thoroughfare. I passed her, too.
If the man tonight was younger, lighter-skinned, cleaner, a woman…would any of these made a difference? Would I have made a more compassionate choice?
It’s easy for me to talk about the story of the Good Samaritan. Easy to talk about extending compassion despite danger; finding heroes in unexpected places; showing mercy. And, honestly, what should I do? What do you do?
Hypocritically and ashamedly yours,
p.s. Yes, this is mostly a confession of my failure, emotional hardness, lack of mercy, and hardness. But I am also really asking: what should I do? What is the most loving and responsible thing I can do when I see someone in such dire straits?