Friday, April 29, 2011

Quicktake - Morality and Altruism

I witnessed the momentary aftermath of two car accidents today. The first was midafternoon--we were driving along a city street, the car in front of us turned onto a side street and there were two cars, surrounded by four or five angry people with cell phones out. We drove around, and it was only as we passed by an ambulance, fire truck, and several police cars heading in the way we'd came that it came to do I know that everything was okay? I just assumed.

Only a few minutes ago, just outside our apartment, a loud bang rattled the windows. Outside, we saw two wrecked vehicles. I shoved my feet into my shoes, ran downstairs and spent a tense few moments comforting a frail old woman who seemed, at least to me, to have a rather terrifying concussion. She was disoriented, forgetful and had a nasty goose-egg the size of a quarter just above her temple. I held her hand and kept her talking until the ambulance arrived.

When I was in college, I learned about the bystander effect. If two people are alone and one has a heart attack, the other will certainly render aid. If that other person is one of ten, a dozen, twenty or more...nobody moves. I saw this happen once when I was in high school when a co-worker at my summer restaurant job had a stroke, turned gray, and collapsed in the middle of the kitchen. Ten people stared and didn't move.

Say what you will about morality in the absence of god--if this world is all we have and this life is all we get, then it makes it a better world for all of us if people are willing to help a stranger for no reason and with no hope of reward, be it immediate or eternal. I don't know how much good I did, but I did what I could and I didn't stand around gawking, and that's the way I prefer it to be. I didn't realize that my small, personal promise to myself not to be one who stands inactive would be put into practice a mere four hours later.

I think about a certain person I've been having conversations with, and the person I used to be. I suspect both of those people would attribute it to a god, who heard a silent prayer and made sure I'd be where I was needed. I don't need it to be that, I just know I did a good thing, and I'll do it again next time I get the chance, and the time after that.

The flashing lights seem to have gone, I think I will look and see how things are.