Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dare to Care

Dare to care
David Servan-Schreiber

It's Saturday night in the Paris m├ętro. Two friends, Etienne and Sophie, are on their way to dinner. After sitting down in the crowded train, they discover the body of a homeless man curled up at their feet. How did he get there? How long has he been lying there? Is he dead? They look around: Everyone avoids looking at the body. Nobody has any idea how to handle this situation. Etienne and Sophie don’t know what to do either.

In a study done in the 1970s, young Christian seminarians were assigned to teach a course on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). To make sure they would be in a hurry just like the priest and the Levite in the Biblical story, who didn’t stop to help a man in need, the researchers gave them directions to their classrooms that allowed them only enough time to arrive at the appointed hour. They didn’t know a man would be lying in the stairwell just before they got to the classroom. More than half the seminarians didn’t stop to help him, not even to see if he was still alive. Evidently it was more important to carry God’s Word than to help the needy.

Indifference is easy to understand. Like these seminarians, like the priest and the Levite in the story, like the Good Samaritan himself, we are always on our way to something important: an appointment, a film, a job. We’re all caught up in a network of constraints that don’t easily yield to unforeseen circumstances, especially someone else’s unforeseen circumstances, especially those of someone we don’t know.
And who are we to step in and help? We aren’t “authorities”—paramedics, security guards or police. If we take an interest in a man like this, won’t we be getting involved in something that isn’t our business? And what can we do for him? We waver between impotence and impatience. This isn’t the first homeless person or the last in the subway. If this case is only a drop in the ocean of human misery, why be late to dinner?

Etienne stares at the body. An ear sticks out from the acrylic cap; the cheeks are pale and gaunt, the hands chapped and swollen. Etienne glances around. Nobody looks in his direction. A willful indifference seems to be shared by everyone else in the train car. Suddenly, without really knowing why, he leans over the cadaverous face, puts his hand on the motionless hand, speaks softly: “What’s wrong? Do you need help?” After a few moments, the man murmurs, without opening his eyes, “I haven’t eaten for three days. I don’t have any strength left.” He smells of alcohol. Etienne knows what happens when you drink on an empty stomach. “Are you dizzy? Would you like me to call someone?”

Already, the young man seated facing Etienne has stood up and leaned over. “Can I do something?” A woman approaches. “Why not help him get off at the next station? We could call someone there.” Now all eyes are on the poor man. Some people seem almost sorry not to have come to the aid of this symbol of human suffering, to have been paralyzed by all the arguments for remaining aloof that ran through their minds.

A number of passengers help carry the man onto the platform. Another passenger rings the bell to alert security that an ambulance is needed. Several people get off the train to make sure everything is handled properly. For these few minutes, the stricken man becomes a part of many people’s lives, the focus of their concerns. One girl offers him a cigarette; another talks with him. How did they shift so quickly from being totally indifferent to putting him at the centre of their attention?

Etienne and Sophie are late for dinner with their friends. But they arrive lighthearted, as if the man had given them a gift—the gift of feeling more human and, especially, of seeing that it takes little to awaken the humanity in everyone.

David Servan-Schreiber is a professor of psychiatry at universities in both France and the U.S., and author of the international bestseller Healing without Freud or Prozac.