Saw a very disturbing thing this morning on the way to work: a naked woman sitting in the middle of the road. I had just turned the corner. Traffic had slowed but I couldn’t see why until I turned the corner. She looked like she was in her mid-20’s to mid-30s—difficult to gauge. When I saw her, I immediately thought that she was injured, that she’d been hit. But then she got to her feet. She looked like a character out of the Ring or the Grudge, with her snarled hair hanging down over her gaunt, pallid face. As she got up I could see that she was naked from the waist down. Next thought: has she been raped? As she crossed the street in front of me, she began to take off her t-shirt and it became apparent that she was psycho.
After those initial shocks, my attention widened to take in my surroundings. Plenty of other people were observing the situation and at least one had her cell phone out, so I stopped reaching for mine. And I drove on. I was scared that if I got out of my vehicle to try to help, the raw madness would coalesce into projection and she might take out her demented misery on me. So I drove on.
But then I felt absolutely horrible about myself. Obviously, I’m one of those people who can observe carnage without doing anything about it. While this quality may make me a good writer, it makes me a terrible Christian.
If this were an isolated situation, I might feel better about myself, but it’s happened more than once. (Not with psychotics, but with drunks).
I remember once when I was first moved to Seattle and saw someone lying insensate in the park near my apartment and when I returned an hour later and saw him in the same posture, I did call 911. Turned out he was just a derelict passed out. But I didn’t know if he was dead or not. So I called. When it turned out he was just a passed out drunk I felt like a fool. Maybe that experience caused a callous to form over my naïve heart. Life in the big city (especially one with as many homeless as ours) has challenges. One of the quips about Minnesota that I remember fondly is: “40 below keeps the riff-raff out.” Words of wisdom—words of wisdom. Minneapolis didn’t have the homelessness that Seattle has. (However, I don’t know if that’s still true).
Obviously, my mind doesn’t work quickly enough to respond. I live in too much fear. I fear altering my routine, even to the point of stopping to get out of the car to assess the situation. I live in a fantasy world of stories and ideas, to the point that, when confronted by grim reality it takes inordinate mental concentration to respond in a meaningful way. My response to this situation wasn’t meaningful. I didn’t do anything to ameliorate it.
So, here’s the philosophical point I’m left with: I didn’t do anything. In the Bible story, I was one of the many whopassed bybefore the Good Samaritan stopped to help. It isn’t that I don’t have a desire to help—I do, but the fear, the weird, disconnected, free-floating fear that I’m going to call “city fear” keeps me isolated and unresponsive.
It’s a primal state, a strange, subhuman state, and I don’t know what the answer is, except that if one other person had been in the car with me—this series of events would have been completely different. Isolation is as much a part of the problem as moral deficiency. Both for me—and the poor madwoman, I dare say.