Friday, January 05, 2007

the moral ambiguity of the mundane world

I live about 5 or 6 blocks from a retirement home. While walking to the subway today, I saw two men about a block ahead of me. One of them was white-haired, and was on his knees beside a walker. The other was dark-haired, and was helping him back to his feet. It seemed to be a bit of a struggle as it took a while. By the time I got up to them, the white-haired man was back on his feet, and was turning around as if heading back to the retirement home. I had thought maybe the dark-haired man was a carer, but when I got close he looked old enough that he might have been another resident of the retirement home. I'm not sure, but in any case, he was not a spring chicken. They were now about 2 blocks from the retirement home.

When I saw the man on his knees I figured I would ask if they needed help if he still hadn't been able to get to his feet by the time I reached them. But when I got to them, and he was off the ground, I had a strong approach-avoid conflict around helping. On the one hand, it seemed like he could have used the help. The white-haired man was stable on his walker and moving slowly, but the dark-haired man was providing support under one arm. It probably would have been useful for me to support him under the other arm.

But I was hesitant to offer the help. As a social psychologist, I know that people often fail to help in situations where they should, so I feel a particular burden in these kinds of situations. At the same time, I am aware of the potential for shame in these kinds of situations. As a younger, independent man, I could make the white-haired man's frailty more obvious. I was in some ways a symbol of what he had lost. I think younger people encounter these situations and dissociate themselves from their elders, as if that could never happen to them. But I am acutely aware that I will not always have my present vitality and, if I am fortunate enough to live that long, I will have to resign myself to the fact that a walk of two blocks is too much for me.

More to the point, I thought he might feel ashamed by my offer of help, taking it as a sign of pity. When I lived in North Carolina, I had a neighbour who drank heavily and walked with a cane. I came out of my apartment once and found him on the ground, struggling to get up some stairs. I helped him up and he went into his apartment without acknowledging me. I felt that he resented my intervention. I suppose he resented his own condition more than me, but again, I was a symbol of what he had lost. I wasn't sure if I had done the right thing. I think this experience informed my choice today - I walked past without saying anything.

What would you have done?


Anonymous Tim said...

I rarely engage even when it's more obvious than this that I can help... I'm still bad at the whole engaging thing.

In this particular case, it wasn't more than a 50/50 call, so I'm not sure that you should have necessarily done anything differently...

9:03 p.m.  

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