I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever called 9-1-1. Memory may have a way of playing tricks on me, but I can’t recall another instance. Either way, I won’t forget the incident anytime soon.
I walk to the office of a client to discuss a new project with them. The stretch of unseasonable warmth continues, and the day could not be better. Sun shines, blossoms bloom, and birds sing. Squirrels chase each other through the trees.
I have plenty of time. No hurry. No hurry at all.
Four blocks from my destination, I approach a man with a walker. I wish him good day. But unlike most people I greet on the sidewalk, he doesn’t simply return the greeting and continue on his way.
“Could you call 9-1-1 for me?” he whispers weakly.
Whoa. “What’s wrong?”
He tells me his MS is flaring up and he needs an ambulance. Without hesitating, I make the phone call.
“Hello, I’m on the corner of Greenview and Fargo with a gentleman who requests medical assistance. He says his MS is flaring up.”
“How old do you think he is?”
I ask the man his age.
“Thirty-four,” he replies.
Without thinking, I repeat his answer to the woman on the phone. Though glancing at the man again, he must surely be older than that – maybe in his fifties. Oh well, it’s not a big deal.
The lady on the phone verified our location, gave me instructions not to give the man any food or water, confirmed my phone number in case she needed to call me, and told me someone would be on the way.
I waited with the man.
Fifteen minutes later, as I near the offices for my meeting, I pass a man on crutches. He asks me for a dollar. Without hesitation, I tell him not today and continue on my way.
so glad to be of help
so glad to do the right thing
who is this?
you want a dollar?
i can’t help right now
Why do I help one man and not the other? Why do I give attention and empathy to the first man but not the second?
Was it the urgency of the situation? Calling an ambulance is an immediate need. Giving a dollar is not as urgent. If he got the money later, he would probably be alright. Maybe could get a meal at a shelter. But I didn’t take the time to be sure. I didn’t ask the man what his need was. I just chose to brush him off.
Was it that I didn’t have enough time to respond to the second man? Helping the first man meant I didn’t have much time left before my meeting. But really, how much time does it take to say hello, chat for a bit, pull a dollar out of my wallet, and continue on my way? Not much.
Was it that helping the second man cost me more? Giving up money means surrendering the opportunity to use it in other ways. Although, thanks to the blessings I’ve received, a dollar is not a high cost to me. But giving isn’t the only way to help him. I could ask him his name, say hello and acknowledge his presence.
Was it that the first situation broke my perception of normal? As a human being, I have a tendency to notice what is unusual or out of place. My brain is wired to look for objects and situations that don’t match the patterns in my head. Someone asking me to call an ambulance is not an everyday occurrence. When it happens, I pay attention.
Was it that I felt more responsible for the first man? If he was in genuine need of urgent care, and I refused to help him, then I have no excuse. I was there. I was able to get him the help he needed. To say no would be to directly say his life isn’t worth saving. Excuses are harder to make when the direct consequences of your actions are so visible.
I suspect, as with many questions in life, the answer is a blend of possibilities. It’s not just one reason or another. It’s complicated.
i want to help
i want to make a difference
but my response is
to not help
to not make
it’s a good thing that i
can change that response
What if I want to change my reaction to the second man? What if I decide that men and women such as he deserve my help, or at the least, my attention? How do I push myself to greater generosity and empathy?
The harsh reality is that I have people asking me for money nearly every time I walk around the city. These men and women often fade into the background of my attention. I push them to the periphery of my mind like the countless advertisements I see. I ignore their pleas for help unless I make a conscious effort to do otherwise.
Part of that means calling out what I’m afraid of. I fear opening myself to their suffering. I fear the added responsibility. I fear my actions won’t help or may even make the situation worse. But if I want to act, I have to face my fears.
Part of that means changing my default response. Instead of saying no right away, I can ask the person their name or how they’re doing. I can choose to engage them as a human being. Doing so shifts the dynamic of the conversation and changes the way I feel about offering – or not offering – assistance. I move from guilt to generosity.
Part of that means setting boundaries and acknowledging that I have finite resources. I can’t help everyone. But there’s lots of people that I can – and want to – assist. Saying no to some people gives me the freedom to say yes to others.
Part of that means accepting failure. No matter what I do, I’m bound to make mistakes. Sometimes, my giving will make the situation worse. Sometimes, I’m conned by someone who isn’t in need. Sometimes, I’ll give and the gift won’t be appreciated. Sometimes, I won’t give to someone who really needs my help. But that’s OK.
All I can do is strive to do right in each situation. Sometime’s I’ll mess up, and other times I won’t act when I should. But I’m willing to try. I’m willing to face the complexity.
sometimes in life
events are more more complex
than first glances show
As I sat with the man, waiting for the ambulance, a lady came from across the street and asked him what he was doing. It turned out that he checked in at a nearby health clinic the night before and could have asked for help there. We waited together until the emergency dispatch arrived. Confident the man was in good hands, I wished him well and continued on my way.
So maybe I didn’t need to help him. He had people to look after him nearby. But I didn’t know that beforehand. Sometimes you just have to make a judgment call. And sometimes, it’s complicated.
PHOTO: Prepared to respond to an emergency. Wheaton, IL.