I read an article on the BBC news website this week reporting on an academic study published in the American Psychologist journal. Its conclusion: there are more Good Samaritans out there than we might think. It made me laugh, not because there was anything funny about it, rather because of our tendency to require research to confirm social norms that we can observe for ourselves, day in day out. I don’t need research to tell me that it’s human nature to be helpful when I can take a walk down a street any day of the week and see it played out for myself. This particular research studied hundreds of incidents captured on CCTV around the world and concluded that the so-called ‘bystander effect’ – that people will not usually help a stranger in distress – is not as prevalent as news feeds might have us believe. Of course we are not a series of individuals going about our business in a bubble, disregarding the small everyday plights of others. Of course people step forward to help store a heavy bag in the overhead locker on a flight; to give up their seat on the bus if someone else looks as if they need it more; to lift the end of a child’s pushchair as a mother struggles to negotiate the steps at Fleshmarket Close. When we don’t stop to help someone in distress we override our basic nature and we know it from the squirming feeling we carry about inside us for the rest of the day. Intervention is the norm.
The article probably jumped out at me this week in particular as I have been continuing my volunteering role on Edinburgh’s streets during the festivals – one where I answer questions from visitors. Mostly I wait, standing by, until people approach me (I am very obviously labelled), but sometimes, when someone is turning their city map faster that a washing machine on full spin and it is clear their brain is spinning along with it, I will step in and offer help. I don’t like to do this too often. I don’t want to embody the radical, foisting, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer hospitality of Mrs. Doyle from Father Ted (‘Cup of tea? Ah, you will, you will, you will!’), where the help is all about making youfeel useful (and don’t we all like to feel useful?). It makes me reconsider the phrase ‘bystander effect’, employed to describe people who don’t intervene. For, these last few weeks, I have learned to be a bystander, holding back until needed, not interfering until necessary, trying to strike the balance between helpfulness and interference.
Just this morning I stopped a man wearing a yellow vest, hard-hat and carrying a shovel in Bristol city centre. I asked him the way to Perry Road. He didn’t know, but three more shovel-wielders appeared and sang me directions in their gorgeous West Country accents. One of them walked me to the top of the hill to set me on my way. There’s always someone standing by, we don’t know they’re there, and neither, usually, do they.
Compassion, by Robert William Service
A beggar in the street I saw,
Who held a hand like withered claw,
As cold as clay;
But as I had no silver groat
To give, I buttoned up my coat
And turned away.
And then I watched a working wife
Who bore the bitter load of life
With lagging limb;
A penny from her purse she took,
And with sweet pity in her look
Gave it to him.
Anon I spied a shabby dame
Who fed six sparrows as they came
In famished flight;
She was so poor and frail and old,
Yet crumbs of her last crust she doled
With pure delight.
Then sudden in my heart was born
For my sleek self a savage scorn,–
Urge to atone;
So when a starving cur I saw
I bandaged up its bleeding paw
And bought a bone.
For God knows it is good to give;
We may not have so long to live,
So if we can,
Let’s do each day a kindly deed,
And stretch a hand to those in need,
Bird, beast or man.